Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Mob - Let the Tribe Increase (1983)

I always dreaded the arrival of my mid-life crisis, but it seems to have worked out quite well, so well in fact that it's probably not so much a crisis as just me buying a load of records. I never learned to drive, so a bright red sports car would be useless; I always thought leather trousers looked fucking stupid; and I'm happily married with no interest in either conspicuously young women or showing them my Charlie Browns. My mid-life crisis has coincided with a period of unusual contentment on my part. I'm settled and comfortable, at long last, and so my attention has inevitably turned to getting hold of all those records I meant to buy at the time, but never did.

I taped I Hear You Laughing - the flip of their single on Crass Records - off John Peel all those years ago, decided they sounded worthy of investigation, and then never got around to it. At least a decade slipped by before I came across that live album with the Apostles on the other side in a junk shop in Lewisham, and a test pressing too - which always struck me as weird. Naturally I bought it, being something of an Apostles obsessive, but I have no memory of playing the thing beyond a vague impression of the Apostles set being a little ropy. Then last year I read some essay about the Mob in the excellent And All Around was Darkness and noticed that the band remained more or less a mystery to me. So I dug out the live thing, immediately saw the error of my ways, and tracked this down - a lovingly tooled and expanded vinyl reissue from Overground.

Anarchopunk bands associated, however loosely, with Crass have a certain reputation for black clothes and scowling, and apparently even Peel cracked some joke about the Mob's apparent lack of cheer after playing one of their records. Of course, the overtly political subject matter proposed by such bands was often that we're all being screwed and society is bloody awful, which seemingly left little scope for light-hearted chuckles. However, as with the received wisdom of how all those Crass bands sounded the same, it's not really true.

Possibly aside from the vaguely jazzy Roger, the Mob sound nothing like Crass. More than anything they remind me of New Model Army - a big heroic rock sound of a kind associated with young men whose generous locks doth flow photogenically in the north wind as they stand atop some rocky promontory gazing fearlessly into the future, but without the usual excess of production; and while the lyrics may indeed be relentlessly bleak tales of man, woman, and child crushed beneath the heel of an oppressive consumerist state, there's a real sense of joy to these songs, specifically the joy of the understanding that there will always be hope on some level, the adrenaline rush of resistance and engaging the enemy.

In fact, the more I listen to this record, the more it sounds like a celebration, a call to arms, something a long, long way from the promised threnody. I'd rhetorically ask where this album has been all my life but I already answered that one in the first paragraph. Let the Tribe Increase is magnificent, and definitely a better deal than fast cars and dolly birds.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Charli Baltimore - Cold as Ice (1999)

I was really looking forward to this one. Money was a great single, and Stand Up seemed to promise good things to come, full page adverts for the album began to appear in the usual places, and then nothing happened. I gather she fell out with the label, or her manager, or something along those lines. Five years flipped past and she turned up on Irv Gotti's Murderers album, but it seemed like the momentum had been lost.

It turns out that this was finally issued as a download only release in 2009, and so here we are at last.

It has to be tough for a female rapper in what is an overpoweringly masculine industry, and so Baltimore's first single was inevitably accompanied by predictable mutterings about whether or not she would have had a record out without having stimulated Christopher Wallace's penis. Probably not, seemed to be the consensus, regardless of the obvious quality of the record, which I suppose is par for the course. It might be argued that she did herself no favours given all the blow jobs which feature prominently in her lyrics and which would seem to support the notion of Charli Baltimore as Bernard Manning's idea of what a female rapper should be; although it might also be argued that this argument is itself only Ben Elton pulling the lemon-sucking face and tutting that she's no better than she ought to be, that one. The issue is probably best settled, if you really need it to be settled, by listening to the album.

A young woman doing what she has to do to get by under difficult circumstances probably sounds like an excuse, given the aforementioned quota of lyrical blow jobs, but there's a lot more to this album, and not actually much of it which fits the stereotype of the gold digging hoochie-mama who boffed Biggie. Vocally she sounds kind of bratty, which is okay, and lyrically she's acrobatic within an admittedly limited range of subjects, but there's a thoughtful edge to tracks such as Have It All and even the admittedly cinematic Thirty Miles to Baltimore, with a powerful element of tragedy running through the whole set.

Money remains hard to top, so I don't know if Cold as Ice was entirely worth the wait or whether it's really so good as I hoped it would be; but it's confident, convincing, and a testament to the ambition and vision of rap back in the nineties. Charli Baltimore really should have been huge.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

AC/DC - Highway to Hell (1979)

Just to get the namedropping out of the way, I've never met any members of AC/DC and nor am I knowingly related to any of them, but I briefly delivered mail to the house in Overhill Road, East Dulwich outside which Bon Scott breathed his last following an evening of partying with unusual vigour back in February, 1980. You could tell it was the place from the memorial graffiti which sporadically appeared on adjacent municipal surfaces. This was in the nineties which, by happy coincidence - at least for me - was the point at which I finally began to understand AC/DC, the key to which is that if you feel you need to understand AC/DC then you're probably thinking about it too hard.

They were one of those groups beloved of everyone except me in the town in which I grew up, and the reason they weren't beloved of me was because everyone else liked them, which meant they must be crap; and also that I hadn't actually heard any of their records. Someone or other lent me the 7" of Whole Lotta Rosie but all I can recall is thinking that it sounded a bit sexist.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can appreciate that AC/DC were basically punk for anyone who didn't live in a big city, as were most bands associated with that whole hairy scene of the time. All I could see were five blokes who looked like everyone at my school and who probably would have regarded Joy Division as poufs, and all the emphasis on guitar solos seemed designed to appeal to shitheads; but, I was a bit up myself - as they say - and doubtless annoyed that everyone seemed to be having sex with girls except for me, which wasn't actually AC/DC's fault, not directly. They seemed stupid, and apparently I wasn't able to work out that stupid was sort of the point, although raw, rootsy and basic would be a better way of putting it.

Years passed and I heard bits and pieces, and it became increasingly hard to deny the power of those choppy bluesy guitar riffs - just chords, but there was something special there, some sound they had in common with the finer end of Led Zeppelin, just more direct. There's a reason that the opening bars of Back in Black score that scene in Iron Man, as opposed to something by Ed Sheeran.

I eventually bought this because a record store had opened on Lordship Lane, but they didn't have much stock and Highway to Hell was about the only thing I could find which seemed like it might at least contain a few surprises. Specifically it contained one surprise, namely that it's a fucking masterpiece contrary to what I had believed at the age of seventeen when I knew everything. AC/DC do one thing and that's rock, which would be stupid but for how well they do it, almost better than anyone else ever; and they rock like few have rocked before or since because they have a vision.

Nobody's playin' Manilow,
Nobody's playin' soul,
And no-one's playin' hard to get,
Just good old rock 'n' roll.

I know. They really didn't need to print the lyrics on the cover. It makes them sound like shitheads, but let's face it - Manilow ain't that great, some soul music was kind of bland, and whatever other objections you may have, you probably wouldn't say it to their faces; and it might be argued that taking umbrage with AC/DC for appealing to shitheads whilst failing to address the concerns of the supposedly sophisticated is a waste of time and misses the point. It could be argued that this material is outrageously sexist - although on close inspection it's actually more like evil Benny Hill - but you might do better to direct any available outrage at something which actually makes people miserable in the real world.

It wasn't the first, it wasn't the last,
It wasn't that she didn't care.
She wanted it hard, wanted it fast,
She liked it done medium rare.

Milligan-esque narrative swerves aside, it's really just a record of men singing songs about how they like to drink beer and how much they appreciate nude ladies - which has been a theme central to rock 'n' roll and the blues from which it sprang from the beginning; and at the risk of turning into Milo Yiannopoulos, I generally share these interests with AC/DC so I don't have a problem with any of it.

On the other hand, Night Prowler makes for uneasy listening as the slowest, arguably heaviest, and unfortunately sexiest track on the album, seemingly belonging to the lyrical subgenre of heavy metal odes to stalking women; but it's a misleading impression possibly fostered by the rest of the album being songs sung for the ladies, sort of. The point of Night Prowler is the mania of the killer rather than his choice of victim. It's a horror story, so it's supposed to upset you, and by way of a clue, there's a bloke with horns on the cover of the record. You know, had I had the sense to embrace this back when I was seventeen, my life might have turned out completely different, and I have an uncomfortable feeling it might even have been a bit better.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Viper - You'll Cowards Don't Even Smoke Crack (2008)

My introduction to the work of Viper came through a facebook group set up to answer the seemingly innocuous question what are we all listening to today? I was getting a bit pissed off with the place, partially due to the promotion of both Burzum and Death in June by means of the usual wearyingly defensive crap about rising above political correctness and thinking for yourself, although it was probably this same post-ironic contingent which started going on about Viper, because this album was apparently massive amongst sneering internet edgelords of a certain type. It's probably the videos which are to blame - shoddy, no budget camcorder jobs made by YouTube types featuring Viper himself sort of jiggling in time to the music, usually with someone who might even be his mum pretending to cook up a big ol' pan of crack on the family stove; but, hilarious though they may be, the videos don't really matter. Of course, it's true that Viper's music probably sounds like nothing you've heard before, and there's an oddly amateurish quality to it as characterised by some of the titles, but fuck - this is some genuinely good shit, and screw whichever anonymous arbiter of what constitutes culture described Viper as an outsider artist.

Okay, so You'll Cowards sounds as though it was recorded on a nineties Playstation, and first impressions speak of a man rapping quietly in hope that his mum, who is probably in the next room, won't hear him talking about guns and crack; but those are false impressions, and the more you listen, the more it becomes obvious how well Viper's husky near-whisper suits the music - and the more it becomes obvious how well everything here fits together, and how it's supposed to sound like this. Sneering over how Viper sounds nothing like whoever just makes you look like a fucking idiot.

The first thing which will hit you is the bass, and how much of it there is, and how often it's more of an effect than anything with any kind of melodic purpose - like a low flying aircraft or the mangled rumble pumped out of some Escalade waiting for the lights to change. The bass is slow and louder than everything else, and the whole sounds compressed to fuck - booming sine waves with a ticking noise in the background, and that would be the drum machine. Never mind outsider art, it takes serious judgment and ability to come up with something this close to sonic collapse which works apparently in spite of itself. Beyond the bass, we have distant haunting melodies played on something resembling a Casio VL Tone, and Viper rapping through what sounds like some kind of codeine haze - the usual gang related material, but not without flair or imagination, and at least as good as anything you ever heard on a No Limit album.

I don't care what any sniggering post-ironic wanker might have to say on the subject, this is a genuinely weird and peculiarly haunting - even soulful - album, and I shall most definitely be investigating the rest of Viper's back catalogue.