Thursday, 25 February 2016

Glen Glenn - Rockabilly Legend (1987)

It took me some time to get my head around rock 'n' roll, as in the specifically American rockabilly variety developed during the fifties and frequently involving quiffs and plaid shirts. My friend Sean's sister liked Elvis, and so we taunted her by referring to him as Elvis Smellvis, which is funny when you're ten. The rest of my limited understanding derived from Top of the Pops occasionally featuring horrible holiday camp cabaret acts such as Showaddywaddy, Matchbox, and Shakin' Stevens - although the latter should probably get some time off his sentence for an admittedly respectable cover of Ricky Nelson's It's Late, among others. I don't know - maybe it was never so bad as it seemed at the time, but English rock 'n' roll made no sense to me, it being something I would mostly associate with people in Burnley pretending to be cowboys. Rockabilly done right should be hot, sunny, and kicking up clouds of dust. It doesn't work in the cold and the pissing rain.

Additionally, when at the age of twelve-ish I graduated from Wombles albums to punk rock - a more entertaining kind of novelty record - it was hard to keep from being swept up in the suspicion that our natural enemies were teddy boys like Rockabilly Ray at school, who was a fucking idiot whichever way you looked at it.

Then in 1984 I moved to Maidstone, Kent, the next town along from Medway with it's thriving garage scene - if we really have to call it that - loosely in orbit of Billy Childish and his band, the Milkshakes. The Milkshakes seemed like something different in so much as they weren't pretending to be American. Amazingly, they weren't even pretending that it was still 1957. They weren't quite playing the kind of thing I was listening to that year, and yet I couldn't help but appreciate their raw energy and no bullshit aesthetic; and this was around the time that my friend Carl attempted to convert me to the Cramps. I liked the Cramps, but even better were Carl's Born Bad compilation albums collecting all the original music the Cramps had covered, stolen, or otherwise mutated. I listened to Born Bad and suddenly I understood; and one aspect I appreciated about a lot of this music was that, when you got down to it, it actually wasn't trying to be Herman Munster, and the trash epithet didn't really fit and was even kind of insulting, because this was some real heartfelt, quality workmanship.

Glen Glenn's Everybody's Movin' wasn't the greatest cut on Born Bad, but it had enough going on to inspire me to snap up this retrospective compilation when I spotted it in the local branch of Our Price. So far as I can tell, Rockabilly Legend comprises mainly demo recordings, broadcast performances recorded directly from the television set by Glenn's dad with a reel-to-reel tape recorder next to the speaker, and a couple of singles which made it big, but probably not quite so big as they deserved thanks to a spell in the military somewhat curtailing our man ever quite building up a full head of showbiz steam in publicity terms. I've had this album nearly thirty years which is roughly how old some of the songs were when I first bought it, which is a truly weird thought. Obviously I generally tend to review material I've had hanging about for a while in this series of reviews - as opposed to ringtones fresh off the MP3 presses - but why this one and why now is nevertheless a reasonable question.

I knew I would experience a certain quota of country music when I first moved to Texas, although it hasn't turned out to be quite so ubiquitous as you might expect, which is nice because I dislike the contemporary stadium version of country with its radio mics, autotune, and songs making incongruous references to facebook. On hearing that I would be moving here, my cousin said he would have to do me a mixtape of alt-country - whatever the hell that is. I declined the offer because the term suggests bearded individuals who own
Sonic Youth records hanging around a raw juice bar discussing Hank Williams, and I think I'd probably rather listen to the real thing, if anything. Nevertheless, country has at last crept up on me - or rockabilly, or whatever you would prefer to call it - when it suddenly dawned on me how much sense this music makes now that I'm living here, as though it's part of the landscape, which I suppose it is. As William Shaw observes in Westsiders:

All music is about geography, in a way. It's either about the place in which it's made, or the place where the maker wants to be.

I still find the notion of cowboys in Burnley mystifying, but over here with the sun, the dust, the possums, and the cacti, I can at last appreciate rockabilly and country as folk music with a profound sense of its place and people, as opposed to an exotic novelty. It somehow explains what I experience as I step outside my front door each day. It feels right, and the discovery of my wife being distantly related to Johnny Cash no longer strikes me as weird.

Anyway, before I disappear completely up my own fundament, let's talk about the actual music. Above all, Glen Glenn favoured a deceptively simple sound which is actually pretty hard to get right in my experience - a raw, acoustic rhythm with wild rock 'n' roll flourishes, yet smooth and even kind of cheery. For all the crap that's been written about rock over the years, and the kind of rock from which almost all else is ultimately derived, it's easily forgotten that this is a well-intentioned music, something which really wants you to have a good time and is supposed to make you happy even with those bluesy origins. Glen Glenn somehow manages to sound both wholesome and worldly, and now that my ears are located in Texas, I realise some of these tracks could have been recorded yesterday, neither six decades nor rudimentary recording techniques diminishing any of Glenn's natural sparkle. I guess it's the mark of a true artist that he can work with a popular form, something resembling a lot of other things which have been around for a while, and yet make it sound new, something fresh and exciting each time the needle hits the record. Glen Glenn packed some serious quality into a career without that much longevity in commercial terms, or by the standards of artists with more extensive back catalogues; and One Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette is easily one of the greatest songs of the fifties for my money, as good or perhaps better than anything you care to name by persons who are better remembered. As titles go, Rockabilly Legend may sound like an overstatement, but it really isn't.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Shellac at Action Park (1994)

I've just noticed that Shellac have now been going longer than those acts I once regarded as peddlers of dinosaur rock back when that suddenly seemed like a thing, and this is weird because I've had this album for most of those twenty plus years and it feels as though I'm only just beginning to understand it. This was either a birthday or Christmas present from my friend Andrew, the one who pegged it, and is thus yet another example of him having introduced me to something I now consider essential listening. Oddly, I found Action Park a little impenetrable at the time - more or less a series of angular riffs and scratching noises scored to a pounding drum rhythm; yet the more I played it, the more its power came to the fore.

People have the wrong idea about Steve Albini, assuming him to be some sort of bloody minded lo-fi figurehead, a man who won't rest until everything has been reduced to a wax cylinder recorded with a microphone made out of old fag papers and knicker elastic. Rather it's the case that he's trying to get to the beauty of the instruments as they sound without all the reverb and chorus and horseshit, none of which are strictly necessary unless you have something to hide - a complete dearth of ideas for example. This isn't to say that the very idea of the studio as instrument is always the province of shitehawks, only that other flavours are available, or at least that they should be.

Albini's musical asceticism extends to the album as object, in this case an object which looks as though it's been purchased from a wooden display box on the counter of a hardware store, and specifically the kind of family owned hardware store tended by a man with strong opinions on possums and raccoons. The music also has a bit of a hardware store feel to it, certainly something involving hammers and sore thumbs. Yet none of this is really quite novelty - some cutesy exercise in nostalgia or punk rock as a Hal Roach production - so much as a reaffirmation of the sheer power of music as visceral and human. Those scratchy riffs and weird, harsh chords executed with the sort of precision timing by which one might operate a lathe or a band saw all slot together to form an almost sculptural whole of complex patterns founded in something surprisingly simple. The drums pound, the bass growls, Albini gives himself a sore throat, and there isn't even standard issue heavy metal distortion on this album, yet it makes Physical Graffiti sound like the Sundays. Steve Albini has made some great records, but this one makes everything which preceded it sound tame.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

David Bowie - Blackstar (2016)

Major fluctuations in the fabric of the Spectacle often tend to bring forth a plague of boils, and boils need lancing, so you might want to skip the first couple of paragraphs.

There's a book called You and Who in which fans of Doctor Who wax lyrically about their favourite show, which is nice because as we know it can be a tough job coaxing these ordinarily reticent, some might say monastic individuals into sharing their opinions; and the same publisher is soon to bring us a similar volume in memoriam of David Bowie, the late chameleon of reinvention. I have seen it opined of Bowie's career that it was almost like he was getting Doctor Who to take him forward a couple of years in time in the TARDIS to check out what was going down in the future whenever he recorded a new album, so it makes sense when you think about it. Thusly I'm really looking forward to a big fat volume of essays on how Bowie's ever-shifting personas were a bit like all the different incarnations of Doctor Who, and how listening to Never Let Me Down got us through some tough times at uni, and how the influence of the self-styled chameleon of reinvention can be heard in everything from Curiosity Killed the Cat to the Jo-Boxers. It's going to be fantastic.

I am dubious of the ways in which we've all marvelled at Bowie's constantly morphing into something new like a rock 'n' roll Barbapapa being genuinely akin to what happens when you go back in time with Doctor Who in his amazing TARDIS and play a tune on your iPhone to a horde of boggle-eyed mediaeval serfs just before they put you on trial for witchcraft. It's not so much that Bowie kept on transforming into something the like of which we'd never seen before as that he wasn't simply re-recording the same album over and over, and in the seventies this seemed like a new thing. The Beatles did it, but I suppose we assumed they were an exception because they were the Beatles. Still, I suppose we're going to be hearing a lot about the fluid state of the ever-changing chameleon of reinvention over the next few months, along with Porridge finally breaking his silence on that band which he and Dave were going to form but never quite got around to - which I'm guessing will be sometime in April.

It has been pointed out somewhere or other that Bowie was not so much a chameleon as a magpie, an artist who popularised his influences, which if nothing else at least saves us the trouble of having to listen to the Velvet Underground. Blues & Soul magazine described him as an artist whose career was entirely based upon the wholesale plunder of black music, which was the point at which I stopped bothering to read Blues & Soul. You might just as well describe rap as a genre entirely based on the wholesale plunder of  white music because of that Kraftwerk 12" single.

The truth is probably in there somewhere. As a massive generalisation, my take on it is that regardless of who Bowie may or may not have ripped off, he popularised pop as an art form of arguably equivalent value to painting, sculpture, Cubism, Jackson Pollock or whatever reference works best for you. This isn't to say that he was the first so much as that he was the first to sell shitloads of records doing so, and to sell them to people who didn't really give a shit about Andy Warhol or William Burroughs.

I don't know. Who cares?

I liked the Beatles when I was a kid. I had four of their albums because they made children's music. Their music was plenty of other things too, but to me it was that and sort of still is. The next record I bought was either by Devo or David Bowie, and I can no longer remember which came first. I must have been about fourteen. I'd been playing those four Beatles albums over and over for about five years when Graham Pierce lent me the first Devo album. It sounded weird and freakish and I didn't even want the thing in my home. I tried to give it back but Graham told me to stick with it, so I did, and realised that I liked it. Either just before or just after my conversion to Devo, Jason Roberts lent me Hunky Dory. I hadn't expressed any interest in Bowie, but Jason seemed to think that I needed to hear the guy. I couldn't even work out why he should have thought that, but I played the album and loved it, and within about a year I had two Devo albums and most of what Bowie had released up to that point; and I never really went back to the Beatles.

Bowie was therefore a massive part of my childhood, and a formative influence on my interest in music, which is probably why it hurt so much that his music became so crappy so soon after I discovered it. I bought Scary Monsters when it came out, and it was a great album, but it was downhill from thereon. He became a Phil Cornwell impersonation throwing self-consciously weird shapes for the sake of it, and he did that for nearly thirty years. It felt as though he'd lost his way, a hunch seemingly supported by this observation made on facebook by Johnny Riggs, who had the pleasure of interviewing the man a couple of times:

But past [Scary Monsters] I think he's been scrambling for a style and a sound (and working in radio I met people who worked with him in the studio who said that was pretty much true) and he hasn't made any music of interest until the last couple of records. Output like Black Tie, Earthling, Outside, etc., I just pretend [it] doesn't exist. It makes me feel better about him. When I read words of praise about them I get confused.

I bought the single Let's Dance when it came out, and it still sounds great, but that was pretty much the last good thing for a while. Black Tie White Noise was hailed as a true return to form, although the singles didn't seem to back that up, at least not for me, and when I eventually heard the thing I thought it sounded fucking comical, and have tended to distrust the claim of a true return to form which has greeted each new Bowie album since then. Maybe as the eighties came around, confronted with a thousand younger versions of his previous records, our Dave felt he'd painted himself into a corner; or he just wanted to be loved again, and loved without inspiring anyone to write essays on Situationism or Jasper Johns; or maybe there was nothing he liked enough to consider worth ripping off. Whatever the case, Bowie was over so far as I could see, and exceptions to the rule were just that, hence Little Wonder.

Anyway, last week I listened to a bit of The Next Day on YouTube just for a chuckle and realised it was the first Bowie I'd been able to listen to since Scary Monsters without picturing Phil Cornwell presenting John Sessions with a facecloth on Stella Street. In fact it reminded me of how exciting it used to be buying a new Bowie album and rushing home to give it a listen. So I went to Hogwild and bagged the new one, and weirdly it really was great,  although it sounded suspiciously like a farewell record, the work of someone who knew the game was up; and now he's no longer with us. I was still getting used to the idea of a David Bowie once again making real music, when suddenly I found I would additionally have to get used to the idea of a past tense David Bowie, which seemed pretty rotten.

Working with a model of Bowie's back catalogue ignoring everything I haven't heard occurring between now and the final album he recorded for RCA, this one reminds me of Station to Station in terms of mood - that being his other lowest introspective ebb record, I suppose - and also Low and Heroes in terms of that pounding percussion, which is probably Tony Visconti as much as anything; and yet it has an identity of its own, whilst almost any track on here could have appeared on Diamond Dogs, Space Oddity, or any of the others without sounding too greatly out of sequence. It has a faintly jazzy sound without quite resembling jazz, which would be the horns and the percussion bordering on the more organic strains of drum and bass. I guess in the lazy terms of the chameleon of reinvention, we've had hippy Bowie, glam Bowie, depressed Bowie, and this would be terminal cancer Bowie. Specifically it sounds like a farewell, and it doesn't require too much imagination to deduce what any of these songs are about. He's here, and he knows it won't be for long, and this is how it feels; or felt.

It makes for tough listening, particularly Lazarus and the fucking racket of Sue (or in a Season of Crime) with its references to clinics and x-rays and stifled hopes; and yet it ends on the incongruously uptempo, almost philosophical note of I Can't Give Everything Away. It's saying things which aren't quite communicated by words alone - which is of course why it's a music album rather than merely an essay; which I suppose has always been the key to Bowie's appeal, namely the poetry of what is said rather than whether or not he's channelling Lou Reed or Iggy Pop or whoever. It comes just as we've lost Lemmy, Mark B, Alan Rickman, and as two of my virtual acquaintances have lost dear friends, and as another close friend's mother has been diagnosed as having about three weeks left, so I suppose you could say it is unfortunately and horribly timely.

It has been wonderful to have our David Bowie back after all this time, even if it wasn't for very long.



Also shit.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Cannibal Ox - The Cold Vein (2001)

Here's yet another one I missed due to it being exactly the sort of thing you would like. The actual thrust of the recommendation was I expect you must be listening to a lot of Cannibal Ox at the moment seeing as that's the shit which those of us with our fingers on the hip-hop pulse presently be banging and all, unless your finger actually isn't on the pulse because you only like commercial rap and the sort of stuff which chavs listen to because you think it's controversial, but that probably isn't the case so, Cannibal Ox - ain't they great!?

Well, that's how it sounded to me.

I'd never heard of Cannibal Ox. I regularly read Hip-Hop Connection and listened to the wireless and browsed the racks at record stores, but I'd never heard of Cannibal Ox because I've generally liked what I've liked without necessarily feeling a need to keep up with the latest sounds for the sake of it; and I'm pretty sure Cannibal Ox were turning heads mainly at the offices of Wire magazine, which has never really been my one-stop shop for beats and rhymes that be rockin' it hot. The Wire seal of approval seemed to suggest rap for people who, when it comes down to it, don't actually like rap, meaning Vast Aire and the other guy were most likely responsible black men with a positive message for the kids on the street and none of those street credibility words, so far as I could tell. Should Cannibal Ox deign to drop their sciences at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, there would at least be no need to quadruple the security arrangements for fear of all their working class friends trying to nick the fixtures or cause a rumpus because, not being racist or nuffink, but well - you know...

Eventually I realised that at least some of the initial fuss had been generated by Cannibal Ox having been produced by El Producto and promoted through his Definitive Jux label; and eventually fifteen years later I pick this up at the local CD Exchange and begin to see the error of my ways.

The Cold Vein takes a few plays before it begins to sink in, but soon reveals itself as right up there with other productions by the same guy. Musically it's ugly, primitive, dirty, and discordant, the spawn of a tornado blowing through a junkyard full of early Nocturnal Emissions albums and accidentally forming an hours worth of beats, and yet the whole has that peculiar, angular beauty of which more or less only El Producto seems capable - a weird, occasionally almost ethereal majesty coming together from God only knows where. The man is a fucking genius. Furthermore, this being production undertaken for somebody else's album, he seems to have reined in some of the weirder excesses you tend to find on his own records, the stuff that sounds like Nurse With Wound in a hoodie holding a spray can; which isn't to say The Cold Vein is smooth, so much as that it's less obviously mutated than Fantastic Damage, hence I suppose why it took a few plays to sink in.

As rappers, I don't find Vast Aire and Vordul Mega quite so listenable as El Producto, although they clearly share common stylistic ground and I can see why they all worked so well together. Lyrically they seem more personal, more realistic, and less prone to disturbing flights of paranoia; which is fine. So okay - I grudgingly admit that I see what all the fuss was about, at long last. It's just a shame the Wire never seemed to bother with all the other stuff over the years which has been just as good as this.