Saturday, 24 June 2017

Shack Time Machine (The Best Of Shack)

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Whenever Shack are mentioned in print, invariably it’s not long before phrases like ‘criminally underrated’ and ‘lost classic’ raise their clichéd heads. Formed in 1988, the Liverpudlian four-piece have always been lavished with critical praise in inverse proportion to their meagre record sales, but perhaps the best way to summarise their career to date is ‘very unlucky’. After an unremarkable first album, songwriter Michael Head and his band knew they had a potential hit on their hands with 1991’s Waterpistol. Falling somewhere between the classic Merseybeat of the Las and the fluid, Byrds-influenced melodies of the Stone Roses’ eponymous debut, it seemed perfectly placed to catapult Shack to stardom. But a series of disastrous events, including a studio fire that destroyed the master tapes, meant Waterpistol did not see the light of day until 1995, by which time the music scene had moved on. After a four-year split, 1999’s HMS Fable emerged boasting a host of Oasis-like big choruses, but they jumped on the Britpop bandwagon just as it was grinding to a halt and the charts remained untroubled. Unperturbed, Head and his sidekicks have continued to release great music ever since. Time Machine is a fine retrospective of their significant talent, featuring some of the best tracks from their four albums from Waterpistol onwards as well as several rare and previously unreleased songs. The highlights are many, but the delicious yearning harmonies of “Undecided” and “Neighbours” are probably the pick of Shack’s earlier work, while their evolution towards a more textured, orchestrated sound on 2003’s Here’s Tom With The Weather is emphatically captured on the epic “Meant To Be”, which employs scintillating mariachi brass and strings sections that would not be out of place on Love’s timeless masterpiece Forever Changes. the hitherto obscure “Al’s Vacation” stands out as one of their best compositions, a quirkily tuneful little jaunt bringing to mind the lazy psychedelic folk of Pink Floyd’s oft-overlooked post-Barrett, pre-Dark Side Of The Moon albums. If you like Shack, you may already own much of what’s here and decide you don’t need this collection. But if you’re an admirer of intelligent, imaginatively arranged guitar pop that’s yet to discover their charms, then Time Machine is quite simply an essential purchase.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cabaret Voltaire ‎Conform To Deform '82 / '90. Archive;

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Designed as a companion piece to the 12" compilation The Original Sound of Sheffield, the three-disc Conform to Deform is the flip side, literally speaking in places. The first two discs, labeled Conform and Deform, trace a spiral path through Cabaret Voltaire's major-label period, compiling B-sides, alternate mixes, unreleased 12" singles, video outtakes, and more. Deform is probably a good word to use in conjunction with most of this material, as much of it is essentially other work poked and prodded, pulled into a new shape, and given a new name. The most extreme realization of the urge to deform comes two tracks into the second disc with "C.O.M.A.," which originally appeared on the flip side of the "I Want You" 12" single and consists of all of the album The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord placed through an audio blender -- well, it sounded nifty at the time. The third disc, Liveform, features the band live in Edinburgh in June of 1990, well after Cabaret Voltaire's catch-up transformation into a house act, on the tour for Groovy, Laidback and Nasty. The material on this third disc is, expectedly, mostly from this album, with a few nods to the past: There's a version of "Sensoria" dressed up as a house track, and a few old lyrics are slyly dropped into the middle of "Ride Baby Ride." The audience is polite to this new material, but if you listen between the songs you can also hear someone screaming for "Yashar" -- surely not a ringing endorsement. Ultimately, the Liveform disc is interesting, but it's hard to believe that someone shelling out money for a box set of Cabs obscurities would be clamoring for a live document from this particular period. The set comes with a booklet complete with a 1983 essay by Andy Gill, written just as the band was embarking on its major-label journey. The booklet is also filled out with words of praise from a new generation of artists who were influenced by the Cabs' collision of funk and electronics, but that praise will seem obvious to anyone dedicated enough to seek out this set of rarities. Those who really want to know why Cabaret Voltaire appealed to the hearts, minds, and feet of a whole generation of listeners and artists (many of whom went on to be the genesis of the techno movement) will be much happier with The Original Sound of Sheffield.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ‎Raising Sand

Robert Plant & Alison KraussRaising Sand

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You don’t have to be a fan of the country, blues or folk genres to appreciate the heartbreaking brilliance of this inspired collaboration. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss? Sounds like one of the most unlikely collaborations in contemporary music since Nick Cave gave Kylie a call. Yet the pairing of the Led Zeppelin rocker with the gorgeous young Union Station singer – under the sonic supervision of the legendary T Bone Burnett – has proved to be just as inspired a move. Recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles, Raising Sand features the two singers doing cover versions of lesser-known material from various country, R&B and folk songwriters. The songs they’ve chosen may not be very famous, but their writers sure are – Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, Doc Watson, the Everly Brothers, Gene Clark, etc. Mixing country, blues and folk rock, the mood throughout is dreamlike, ominous and ethereal. At times, it’s downright spooky, like something you’d hear on the Twin Peaks soundtrack. Not that there was ever really any doubt, but Plant and Krauss – singing both solo and in harmonies on songs well out of their respective comfort zones – prove themselves to be amazingly versatile vocalists. Plant has never sounded so wounded and vulnerable as he does on their slow take on Gene Clark’s ‘Polly Come Home’. A couple of foot-stomping honky-tonk moments aside, for the most part the music is slow, sublime and intimate – incisively crafted by, amongst others, multi-instrumentalist Mike Seeger, guitarists Norman Blake and Marc Ribot, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose. Burnett himself plays six-string guitar on a couple of tracks, while Krauss’s fiddle also gets some welcome workouts. While there are obvious standouts – Krauss’s wonderful take on Sam Philip’s ‘Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us’, Plant’s revealingly melancholic reinterpretation of his own ‘Please Read The Letter’ – there really isn’t a dud among the thirteen songs here. You don’t have to be a fan of the country, blues or folk genres to appreciate the heartbreaking brilliance of this inspired collaboration. Raising Sand is easily one of the best albums of 2007.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Aztec Camera ‎High Land, Hard Rain Reissue

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Some performers never make a bigger splash than with their first record, a situation that the Ramones and De La Soul know all too well. If that's the case, though, said musicians had better make sure that debut is a doozy. Aztec Camera, or more specifically, Roddy Frame, falls squarely into this scenario, because while he has doggedly plugged away ever since with a series of what are, at times, not bad releases, High Land, Hard Rain remains the lovely touchstone of Frame's career. Very much the contemporaries of such well-scrubbed Scottish guitar pop confectionaries as Orange Juice, but with the best gumption and star quality of them all, Aztec Camera led off the album with "Oblivious," a mini-masterpiece of acoustic guitar hooks, lightly funky rhythms, and swooning backing vocals. If nothing tops that on High Land, Hard Rain, most of the remaining songs come very close, while they also carefully avoid coming across like a series of general sound-alikes. Frame's wry way around words of love (as well as his slightly nasal singing) drew comparisons to Elvis Costello, but Frame sounds far less burdened by expectations and more freely fun. References from Keats to Joe Strummer crop up (not to mention an inspired steal from Iggy's "Lust for Life" on "Queen's Tattoos"), but never overwhelm Frame's ruminations on romance, which are both sweet and sour. Musically, his capable band backs him with gusto, from the solo-into-full-band showstopper "The Bugle Sounds Again" to the heart-stopping guitar work on "Lost Outside the Tunnel." Whether listeners want to investigate further from here is up to them, but High Land, Hard Rain itself is a flat-out must-have.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Cosmic Rough Riders ‎Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine

Cosmic Rough RidersEnjoy The Melodic Sunshine

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Every time you want to dismiss this Scottish quintet as harmless, winsome fluff, they disarm you with depth of feeling and substance. This LP is well titled: there's a real sunniness to these folks that's completely unforced. It's so surprisingly welcome. When so much of rock tries to beat you into submission, you find yourself playing Enjoy the Melodic Sunshine nearly everyday. Like some throwback California sun 'n' surf morning that never existed, the glistening harmonies, '60s light-pop touches, and over-earnest but well-mannered, tender lyrics send the cynic in you fleeing in disbelief that you'd fall for this. But fall you do. Mind, it starts slow, if OK. The opening "Brothers Gather Round" and "The Gun Isn't Loaded" are more Gordon Lightfoot than pretty Byrds and the more pastoral Teenage Fanclub, and the next few cuts only start to warm up for the nuggets down the road. Beginning with the gushing verses of "Revolution (In the Summertime)," the second two-thirds begins to soar on its own momentum. In particular, "You've Got Me" is as lithesome and sweet a love song as you've heard in eons, so sincere and heartfelt it beckons to your more valiant impulses. Likewise, "Melanie" draws you into the melodrama, cursing the JFK customs agents that sent the singer back, when his longed-for is here. Even when they interject a tiny note of callousness in "Sometime" -- fending off hints of marriage with a thoughtless "let's live for today" -- they redeem it by promising "Sometime/I might change my mind/But 'til I do/I'll be right here with you" -- set to a tune so breezy and grabbing, it's made for singing along. One is equally seduced by the pristine pangs of "Have You Heard the News Today," wherein a '60s bridge like "I really didn't like her style/And then I looked in her eyes" is placed within a diving riff and descending chord melody that's a knockout. This bunch has the tunes, they have the delicate appreciation for all that is small wonder in the bright light of one's stare, and a pleasant air that's bound to stop you dead.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Heavenly ‎Operation Heavenly

HeavenlyOperation Heavenly

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Heavenly's last album finds them working with a more rock-oriented sound that hasn't been heard since the mid-'80s, when its key members were in "shambling" pioneers Talulah Gosh. While Operation Heavenly may not impress those who aren't already indie-pop fans, it still stands as a solid conclusion to a great career; bouncy gems like "Ben Sherman," "Fat Lenny," and a cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Nous Ne Somme Pas Des Anges" combine new wave lightheartedness, a hint of edgy indie-rock, and Heavenly's knack for writing sweet and perfect melodies. The band might have been moving away from the cloying cuteness of their previous albums, but they retained their energy and their unparalleled skill at writing catchy, ironic pop songs

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Flatmates ‎Love And Death (The Flatmates 86-89)

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The Flatmates were one of the best groups to come out of the oft-maligned C-86 movement in the U.K. Led by the tough but tender vocals of Deb Haynes and a noisy guitar-led attack, they were a pop group first and foremost, sounding like a near-perfect blend of the Shangri-Las and the Ramones. This collection of their finest songs released during their short lifespan is a compelling argument that the Flatmates were one of the best guitar pop bands of the era. The disc is made up of the best songs from the band's five EPs and compilation appearances as well as a handful of unreleased tracks that were demos recorded in search of a major-label deal. That deal never materialized and the band imploded in 1989, having gained some popularity but never reaching the big time. This collection won't change that, but it does firmly cement the Flatmates' status as leaders of the indie pack.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Ride Going Blank Again 20th Anniversary Edition

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Difficult to believe as it may be, just 25 years ago Ride found themselves sitting pretty in the top tens of both the UK singles and albums chart. While not the most commercially unfriendly band of the day by any stretch of the imagination, their achievements still raised a few eyebrows back then, not to mention a hail of celebratory cheers up and down the land from the indie and underground fraternity. After all, it isn't every day that a guitar heavy mantra clocking in at eight minutes gatecrashes a top ten containing such gems as The Pasadenas and Curtis Stigers that particular week. Entering the charts as the second highest new entry in the lofty position of number nine just six places behind Michael Jackson's 'Remember The Time' - indeed The Jesus & Mary Chain's 'Reverence' also cracked the final ten that week one place below - 'Leave Them All Behind' has arguably become Ride's signature piece. The moment they left the shoegaze tag behind once and for all. Eighteen months earlier, the band had released their debut long player, Nowhere, to a fanfare of universal acclaim. Even today still heralded as one of the most inspired records of its generation, most bands would have been daunted at the prospect of following such a near perfect artifact as this. But then Ride never were a band that rested on their laurels. Despite Rob Newman's occasionally humorous send-up sketch on The Mary Whitehouse Experience, their focus and determination could never be faulted. So, less than a year after Nowhere's release, work had already begun on its successor. Whereas Nowhere was borne out of a shared love of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus & Mary Chain and The House Of Love, Going Blank Again would see a more diverse range of influences enter the melting pot. Recorded towards the back end of 1991 with Alan Moulder, whose previous credits had included the Glider and Tremelo EPs for My Bloody Valentine and the Mary Chain's Automatic long player, Going Blank Again was unleashed in March the following year with both critics and consumers alike falling head over heels for its box of delights. Comprising ten songs in total, it's a beguiling affair for those like myself previously turned onto Ride's effluent charm by those flawless first four EPs and the innocent beauty cum maelstrom of Nowhere. And yet also compelling, not least in the way every single piece offers something new on each subsequent listen. Take the aforementioned 'Leave Them All Behind' for example, already a firm favourite due to Andy Bell and Mark Gardener's harmonising incandescently over guitars that resemble successive tidal waves crashing against the shore. However, it's the often understated rhythm section of Steve Queralt and Loz Colbert that really come to the fore here, driving the song along at its widescreen core, occasionally traversing into dub territories before Gardener and Bell declare "I don't care about the truth!" in the coda. The term masterpiece is bandied about far too easily nowadays but for eight glorious minutes or so in 1992, this was as close as the UK independent scene ever got to creating its own 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. And so it continues throughout the record. 'Twisterella' arguably represents Ride's finest three minutes from a pop perspective (although it could be said of the early singles 'Chelsea Girl' and 'Like A Daydream'), while 'Not Fazed' sees the Oxford four-piece reliving their wildest Marquee Moon fantasies. 'Chrome Waves' meanwhile samples Massive Attack's 'Unfinished Sympathy', its string segment and laidback aura owing more to Bristol's burgeoning trip hop collective than the Home Counties so-called scene that celebrates itself Ride were allegedly spawned from. Duelling guitars - check out Bell's mesmeric solo in the final third - and a melody that accentuates yet pre-dates Britpop by a good two years characterises 'Mouse Trap', another stark diversion from what had previously been regarded as the accepted norm with Ride. Indeed it's only on 'Time Of Her Time', situated at Going Blank Again's halfway mark, that Ride come close to the reverb heavy overload of their debut. Influenced by Terry Bickers of The House Of Love while not sounding a million miles away from his 'Destroy The Heart' opus, its place here perhaps a final sign-off to Nowhere's dense soundscapes. Another sample, this time from Bruce Robinson's 1987 adaptation of 'Withnail & I', introduces 'Cool Your Boots', a reflective, and somewhat sprawling opus that serves as 'Leave Them All Behind''s slightly paralytic younger sibling. 'Making Judy Smile' also doffs its cap towards Britpop, albeit the original Sixties era that started the ball rolling. It's on the dreamy, dub heavy, two-songs-in-one 'Time Machine' where Ride really come into their own. Imagine King Tubby and Kevin Shields sat at the controls while Paul Simon's recording Graceland and you're halfway there. Having already flirted with similar experiments in sound on 1991's Today Forever EP, 'Time Machine' is yet another example of a band at a creative peak they would struggle to repeat again. 'OX4' closes the record in a psychedelic swirl reminiscent of Hawkwind at their In Search Of Space finest, Gardener and Bell both managing to sound errant yet wistful in their delivery. The album was re-issued with four bonus tracks taken from the 'Leave Them All Behind' and 'Twisterella' singles in 2001, and all four remain for this twentieth anniversary edition too. While 'Going Blank Again' the song didn't make Going Blank Again the album first time round, its symphonic urgency resonates here, particular against 'Howard Hughes's more sombre nature and the plodding if partially incisive 'Stampede', possibly the weakest track of the bunch. The ten-minute instrumental 'Grasshopper' closes the audio element, at the time resembling nothing else on this earth, even though the likes of Godspeed! You Black Emperor would soon be churning out textured pieces of similar magnificence in their sleep. What radiates through Going Blank Again from start to finish is how the record's never dated badly. If anything, it carries the same amount of succulent vitality when first released, its contents still refreshingly relevant now as then. And then of course there's the bonus DVD, Live At Brixton. Essentially it's a greatest hits set recorded on 27th March 1992 and originally released in VHS format later that same year. It captures Ride at their diligent, if unspectacular best. Highlights from their first four EPs - check out the double whammy of 'Unfamiliar' and 'Like A Daydream' early on in the set - congeal with choice picks from Nowhere (the title track, 'Vapour Trail' and 'Dreams Burn Down' standing out emphatically) and the majority of Going Blank Again, the complicated arrangement of 'Time Machine' unsurprisingly omitted from the live set. As an added incentive to purchase what is already a must-own record anyway, the twentieth anniversary edition of Going Blank Again is an essential addition to anyone's collection. So what are you waiting for..?
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