Saturday 22 June 2024

Squeeze East Side Story



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Roundly regarded as Squeeze's grand masterpiece, in its planned incarnation East Side Story was going to be much grander: it was designed as a double-album with each side produced by a different musician, all a forefather of a different aspect of Squeeze. Dave Edmunds and his Rockpile cohort Nick Lowe were both contracted, as was Lowe's main producing success story Elvis Costello, and then Paul McCartney was slated for a side, but as the sessions started all but Elvis and Edmunds pulled out, with Dave only contributing one track. Costello was enough to make a big, big difference, helping to highlight a band in flux. Jools Holland left the group after Argybargy, taking with him a penchant for boogie-woogie novelty tunes. His replacement was Paul Carrack, veteran of pub rockers Ace who gave Squeeze another lead singer with true commercial potential -- something that Costello exploited by having Carrack sing lead for the brilliant piece of blue-eyed soul, "Tempted" (Costello and Glenn Tilbrook sneak in for the second verse). "Tempted" was a misleading hit -- at least it was a hit in America, where it turned into a '80s standard -- in that it suggested Carrack was a larger presence in the band than he really was, yet it also suggested the richness of East Side Story, and in how the band's music deepened and found a sympathetic producer in Costello. Far from reprising his skeletal, nervy production for The Specials, Costello smoothes out the lingering rough edges in the band, giving them a hint of gloss that has more to do with its new wave era than commercial considerations. One thing that is missing is the frenzied beat that had been Squeeze's signature throughout their first three albums: despite the echoey rockabilly of "Messed Around" -- if you didn't check the credits, you'd be sure this is Edmunds' production, but he was responsible for tightening up the almost ideal opener "In Quintessence," which strangely enough sounds like Costello's 1981 album, Trust (it really was an incestuous scene) -- this isn't a rock & roll album, it's a pop album through and through, from its sounds to its songs. It's bright, colorful, immediate even when things get ambitious, as they do on the dense, grandly psychedelic "F-Hole," which is cleverly deflated -- musically and lyrically -- by its juxtaposition with "Labelled with Love," a lazy country-rock stroll that doesn't seem out of place among the rest of the clever, immaculately constructed pop songs. Instead, it acts as further proof that Difford and Tilbrook could write and play almost anything at this point: they perfected their barbed, bouncy pop -- best heard on the single "Is That Love," but also "Someone Else's Heart" and terrific, percolating "Piccadilly" -- but they also slowed down to a hazy crawl on "There's No Tomorrow," turned intimate and sensitive on the jangly "Woman's World," and crafted the remarkably fragile, Baroque "Vanity Fair." All this variety gave East Side Story the feel of the double-album it was originally intended to be and it stands as Squeeze's tour de force, the best pop band of their time stretching every one of its muscles. [The 1998 U.K. reissue contained two bonus tracks: "The Axe Has Now Fallen," whose bright beat can't mask its bitterness, and a pretty good cover of the pop-soul standard "Looking for a Love"].

Saturday 15 June 2024

Shriekback Big Night Music


Shriekback Big Night Music

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Big Night Music continued Shriekback's evolution from fringe weirdoes to unlikely pop stars. It was more accessible than anything they'd done before, and not by accident -- a conscious intent to reach for a wider audience is apparent even in the album's packaging, which pictures the band members on the cover for the first time, includes a long note from Shriekback to their fans, and gives credits for make-up, hair, and denim. The lush, organic production (by Gavin MacKillop) is a long, long way from the clattering psycho-funk of Tench, and Shriekback's distinctive drum programs have been entirely replaced by Martyn Barker's drums. ("Big Night Music is entirely free of drum machines," say the liner notes. "Shriekback have chosen to make a different kind of music -- one which exalts human frailty and the harmonious mess of nature over the simplistic reductions of our crude computers.") All this makes it tempting to dismiss this album, but that would be a mistake -- taken on its own terms, it's a vastly successful record. Its ten tracks explore a variety of new styles and the results include some of their best songs: "The Shining Path," an evocative moonlight serenade; "The Reptiles and I," with glassine synths echoing over a sinewy rhythm section; and "Sticky Jazz," which is funky in a joyful, floppy way and marks quite a change for the often sinister Shrieks. Barry Andrews, who handles all lead vocals for the first time, is not a great singer, but he manages; Barker shows impressive rhythmic versatility; and Dave Allen continues to be the band's anchor, providing dependable brilliance on the low end. Big Night Music accomplished everything it set out to do, finding success with both record buyers and critics

 

Saturday 8 June 2024

Plaid Not For Threes



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Plaid's second full-length release, Not for Threes, is separated from its predecessor by one of the most celebrated side trips in electronic listening music's brief but broad history. As members of the Black Dog, Ed Handley and Andy Turner (together with Ken Downie) helped set the standard for experimental techno, bringing a daring range of influences together in a space consistently characterized by quality and innovation. As such, great things were expected of Threes, and with a couple exceptions, the pair delivers. Although treading far closer than any Black Dog material ever did to the sort of pop electronica of Plaid's interim work with Björk (who appears here on the gorgeous "Lilith"), Threes is ambitious on different terms, moving from the abused and distorted breaks of "Extork" and "Prague Radio" to a balanced radio-friendliness that never sacrifices ingenuity for ease. A handful of tracks feature vocals throughout, and while the results had the predictable effect of irritating BD purists, they actually work remarkably well (partly because the tracks contain absolutely no trace of compositional compromise). A few of the tracks ("Headspin," "Abla Eedio," the too-brief "Seph") sit easily beside the very best Black Dog.

 

Saturday 1 June 2024

Nitin Sawhney Beyond Skin


Nitin Sawhney Beyond Skin

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Nitin Sawhney's Beyond Skin works on at least two levels. First, it's a plea against racism and war, relating, as Sawhney writes in the liner notes, that one's identity is defined only by oneself -- that identity is "beyond skin." Second, the music is an extremely accomplished blend of classical, drum'n'bass, jazz, hip-hop, and Indian elements. The album's political statements are seen most clearly in the samples imbedded in the beginning and ending of most tracks. Dealing with nuclear testing and identity, the samples are effective in setting the tone for the songs. The music is quite lush, featuring among other instruments, tablas, pianos, and cellos to equally beautiful effect. The production brings a crystal-clear polish to nearly every element in the mix, whether it's the passionate, intense vocals of the Rizwan Qawwali Group on "Homelands" or the stunning, impossibly gorgeous voice of Swati Natekar on "Nadia." The entire album is bathed in eclectic touches which never fail to maintain a poetic, accessible sense of charm and wonder. Rarely has electronic music been crafted with as much substance and style as it has on Beyond Skin. Sawhney travels back and forth between genres quite effortlessly. "Nadia" is as good a drum'n'bass track as one is likely to find. "Letting Go" suggests the coffee-table trip-pop of Morcheeba's Big Calm. "The Pilgrim" is moody, soul-searching hip-hop aided by the wiry vocals of Spek. "Tides" is an excellent, breezy jazz number suggesting Vince Guaraladi in his finest, most experimental moments. "Nostalgia" sounds like a more-relaxed Lamb. "The Conference" is a treat, featuring incredible vocal interplay that simply must be heard to be believed. "Beyond Skin," which opens and closes with a sample of Edward Murrow reading the poem "Now I'm become death," is a powerful conclusion to Sawhney's pacifistic vision. Accessible, frightening, emotional, and most-of-all accomplished, Sawhney's Beyond Skin is a remarkable album of rewarding, organic music. [The Japanese release adds two bonus tracks: the "Coldcut" and "Joe Claussell Remixes" of "Homelands."]

     

Saturday 25 May 2024

Elvis Costello And The Attractions This Year's Model

 


Elvis Costello And The Attractions This Year's Model

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The flagship in the second set of Rhino Elvis Costello reissues -- indeed, the one that's supposed to set the pace, since all of these are "harsh," "angry rock" -- This Year's Model, like all of Costello's Columbia recordings, already received a deluxe reissue treatment from Rykodisc in the mid-'90s. That set was just one disc, compared to Rhino's double-disc 2002 release, but it did have five bonus tracks (six, if you count "Radio Radio," which it was on the Ryko, but is part of the proper album here), all of which were excellent -- partially because there were two B-sides, "Big Tears" and "Crawling to the USA," along with three demos, including the previously unheard "Running Out of Angels." All these are on the Rhino set, along with seven new bonus tracks, all but three alternate versions of songs on the album. Of these, the Capital radio versions of "You Belong to Me" and "Radio, Radio" are spare, electric, solo demos, just Costello with his guitar; the alternate "This Year's Girl" and "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" are leaner and quirkier than those on the album, yet their edges aren't yet finely honed. Then, there's a moody BBC take on "Stranger in the House" featuring the full Attractions that winds up excising the country out of the song. Finally, there are two live covers that are the highlights of the new bonus tracks -- an insistent version of the Damned's "Neat Neat Neat" that was the B-side of "Radio, Radio," plus a sly take on Kilburn & the High Roads' "The Roadette Song." All of these, particularly the last two, are welcome additions, and Costello's liner notes are much better than they were on the first version, but there are no real revelations, especially for those hardcore fans who already have the covers on some bootleg. So, while this is a better version of This Year's Model, with more music and better packaging, it's hard to unequivocally recommend this, in good conscience, for those who already have the Ryko version, since there just isn't that much new.

 

Saturday 27 April 2024

Xymox Twist Of Shadows



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The band had struck a deal with PolyGram’s new subsidiary Wing Records for two albums, and there was even a writeup in Billboard Magazine about it, oddly enough. The album remains the group’s biggest seller and with good reason – it’s solid through and through. Main producer Peter Walsh created an album that wasn’t saddled with that “4AD sound,” but instead gave Xymox a danceable and accessible sound that you could shake your tail feathers to if you wanted, or just sit and take in the moodier pieces. “Evelyn” starts the album off with its gigantic synth/string intro, a love song with that goth twist with lyrics like, “We walked ‘til the sunlight died.” “Obsession” was the lead single and made a pretty good impression on radio; it includes some of Ronny Moorings’ twistedly visual lyrics like, “It’s just the way it should be / It’s so right as rain / We stayed awake at night / With visions so unreal / We stayed awake at night / with visions so ideal / It’s got a hold on me”. “Blind Hearts” and “A Million Things” had already been included on a 12-inch that proved to be the final release that the band would do for former label 4AD. Here in re-recorded form and definitely not as murky sounding, they meld in perfectly with the other original numbers. “Imagination” proved to be the real surprise as the third single released, sung by bass player Anka Wolbert. It actually charted in the U.S., landing at number 85 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles and helping the album sell over 300,000 units. Not to be forgotten is the instrumental closer composed by main keyboardist Pieter Nooten, titled “Clementina.” It is a majestic and moving end to an album that has no blemishes. Pylon Records has gone above and beyond by including five bonus tracks on the 2-LP edition (available in red or black) and 10 for the 2-CD version. Some are making their CD debut like the Club mix for “Blind Hearts,” the B-side track “Shame,” the Dub mix of “Imagination,” and the impossibly rare instrumental B-side (only available on a promotional pressing of the Blind Hearts 12-inch) “Promises.” There are still more, but I don’t want you reading all night, preferring that you find Twist of Shadows for yourself and spend your time listening. You will find it to be so worth it.

Saturday 20 April 2024

Boards Of Canada Geogaddi


Boards Of Canada Geogaddi

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Geogaddi, the most anticipated sophomore full-length from an IDM act since Aphex Twin's SAW 2 in 1994, certainly looks and feels similar to the 1998 Boards of Canada debut, Music Has the Right to Children. The package design includes artful, bleached-out photos of children playing, while the lengthy track listing balances short vignettes with longer tracks. Fans will be delighted to hear that the music also reveals no great departure from one of the most immediately recognizable sounds in electronica; a pair of Scottish cottage producers apparently whiling away the hours creating music, Boards of Canada specialize in evocative, mournful, sample-laden downtempo music often sounding as though produced on malfunctioning equipment excavated from the ruins of an early-'70s computer lab. Geogaddi has a bit less in the way of melodics (the prime factor why Music Has the Right to Children was an immediate classic) and, as a result, sounds slightly less like trip-hop for fairy tales and more like the slightly experimental, but definitely produced, electronic music it is. Still, Boards of Canada surely haven't lost their touch for creating spectral machine music: "1969" is particularly lovely, with starburst synthesizer lines and disembodied vocoders trilling the chorus (the samples apparently originate from a David Koresh follower). For "Sunshine Recorder," a very fitting vocal sample -- lifted from a documentary concerning a species of dandelion found by sub-aquatic robots on the ocean floor (and yes, that is Leslie Nielsen narrating) -- prefaces the melancholy synth, vocal cut-ups, and glacier-speed basslines. It's clear Boards of Canada labored long to create Geogaddi, since only a tremendous amount of work can produce music that flows so naturally and unobtrusively that it never sounds produced.

Saturday 13 April 2024

Even As We Speak Feral Pop Frenzy


Even As We Speak Feral Pop Frenzy

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Just to reiterate, John Peel had tremendous taste in music! The Sydney, Australia outfit Even As We Speak was one of late UK radio personality’s favorites.The band’s work garnered the attention of Mr. Peel in the early 1990s and as result, help usher in other attention in the form of three Top 5 singles on the Melody Maker_/_New Musical Express independent charts on top of acclaim in their native Australia. Don’t let the haunting, foreboding opening track “Beelzebub” fool you, the album’s contents is more indicative of the band’s association with Sarah Records (known more for twee/sucrose pop sounds). Musically, the band carries over obvious familiarities like The Go-Betweens (“Falling Down the Stairs”), and The Primitives (“Beautiful Day”), with Paul Clarke’s and Matthew Love’s effervescent guitar work. Where the record differs from its Sarah brethren however is its contradicting pop variations (from the discotheque danceability of “Drown” and “Spirit of Progress” and the heavily-effected “Straight As An Arrow” to the easy flow of acoustic-based “Sailors’ Grave”), and weird segues (spoken word transitions like “Squid” and “Zeppelins” and an out-of-place, mouth-harp led “Cripple Creek”), between song clusters show the more experimental side of the band. Feral Pop Frenzy remains a record with contradicting qualities of what pop music was at the time of its release all the while pushing a technological envelope of what was at a band’s disposal back in the early ’90s. With its diverse use of instrumentation, the album’s sound scapes sound as fresh today as they did then while Mary Wyer’s nectarous vocals give the tunes a brevity and beauty that allows the band’s sound explorations to remain grounded and wondrous

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