Monthly Archives: December 2015

THE DOG’S BALEARICS

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I’ve always liked the word soundscape.

I’m not even sure if it’s even really a word but it should be. Not least because I can think of no better word to describe the sonically perfect Roxy Music album “Avalon”.

Long before you could pop in to Asda and pick up the Greatest Chill-out ever or snooze off to a Cafe Del Mar compilation, there was “Avalon”.

This album shimmers. It has layer upon layer of aural texture, all beautifully produced into what feels like an entirely complete suite of music the like of which we had not really heard in 1982. There’s plenty of languid fretless bass, atmospheric keyboard builds and clever sax fills which now seem far more common. Roxy Music had always been a band that had enjoyed experimentation but, although honed over the previous two records, this more ambient sound really started with “Avalon’s” style of production.

The most familiar of the tracks is the opener “More Than This” which is probably the most typical song on the album and a deserved hit as a result, picking up on the styling that had been executed so well and so romantically on the ethereal “Dance Away” from Manifesto and “Oh Yeah” from Flesh And Blood. These two albums had already marked a departure from the early years of Roxy Music after a four year hiatus and the band came back as a slicker, smoother version of themselves and took this sound to its absolute zenith with “Avalon”.

The second track “The Space Between” really starts to hint at what we can really expect from the album – far more mood than meaning. I am sure that there are many who will happily dissect the lyrics but they are largely just the final texture of this most elegant of soundscapes – see, it is a nice word.

“While My Heart Is Still Beating” and “The Main Thing” are perfect examples of how Bryan Ferry’s voice is used as another layer within the entire body of the production. With the mighty “Avalon” and its (soon to be de rigeur for 80s acts) angelic female backing, you realise that this is an album designed to transport you to another dimension. This transportation is nowhere more evident than the light and shade of the majestic “To Turn You On”. Chilled out indeed.

There’s two instrumentals “Tara” and “India” that fans of the Balearic genre will swear are lost oddities from Paul Oakenfold’s late eighties Ibiza record box. They have a wonderful relaxed lustre that really foreshadows a whole musical trend by at least half a decade.

And really Bryan Ferry deserves an inordinate amount of credit for his vocal style which is simply other-worldly. His voice has always been unique but here it sounds so fragile and delicate that it could blow away at any minute. “Take A Chance With Me” (a song that feels like a close cousin to the previous album’s “Same Old Scene”) has an extraordinary introduction (hence always listen to the full version not the single edit) before he launches into another pleading heart tug that is again so tastefully delivered in his sensuous vibrato.

In fact, I think his voice is so perfect that I have to make an entreaty to you. Do not be persuaded to see any version of Bryan Ferry or Roxy Music live because all the magic of what you remember is inevitably lost in some over-amped boom with his voice lacking all of the subtlety and wispiness that made you fall in love with those recordings originally. Imagine a karaoke version of Bryan Ferry onstage… and not a good one.

Outrageous and controversial, I know, but sadly too true.

Instead leave yourself with the pleasure of the entire album. It is one of the lost arts of music now, I feel – creating an album in which order and continuous feel are the blueprint of its success. The singles from the album are all good but far more enjoyable when listened to within their proper order.

Maybe I shouldn’t get so worked up about it, perhaps I should just chillout. After all, I know just the record.

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NOT A SHARK IN SIGHT

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Media critic, Jon Hein came up with the term “jumping the shark” to describe the moment when a previously excellent TV series had really outlived its natural life and resorted to gimmicks in a desperate attempt to keep its audience. It comes from the moment in an episode of the much-loved “Happy Days” when Fonzie – still in leather jacket – has to do a water-ski jump over a shark.

You get the gist.

There are doubtless several moments in the history of popular music where we could plot an artist’s “jumping the shark” moment and I doubt anybody’s was as profound and obvious as that of Dire Straits.

The ‘Brothers In Arms’ album from 1985 and specifically, “Walk Of Life” and even more specifically, the re-edited video using US sports bloopers.

Admittedly, whilst the 30 million copies of the album that were sold will have softened the blow, the band’s reputation never really recovered. This was just such an inane requiem for what had been a genuine, classy and innovative band.

For the purposes of clarity, Mark Knopfler is a distinctive vocalist, as good a guitarist as many of his more illustrious “God-like” compadres and a genuinely fantastic songwriter . In fact beyond that he is an unbelievable storyteller both in lyrics and in sound production. ‘Making Movies’ and ‘Love Over Gold’ are undoubtedly the two chief exhibits in his defence here, though his lower profile solo work such as “Sailing To Philadelphia” and “The Ragpicker’s Dream” are equally rewarding.

How often would you listen to a song lasting over 14 minutes and not find yourself looking to skip or fast forward? I know I wouldn’t – sorry Genesis fans – but I would happily go the whole nine yards for “Telegraph Road” – a song that feels as epic and cross generational as James Michener’s ‘Centennial’ novel and yet becomes just so paradoxically personal and intimate before launching into its final guitar-driven closing straight. Later Knopfler would become a skilled movie soundtrack composer. In this opener, he sounds like he’s delivered an entire film already.

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As if this wasn’t enough, ready on the blocks is the equally cinematic “Private Investigations” but here ‘How The West Was Won’ is swapped for a true piece of Sam Spade-ish film-noir.

First we are treated to an astonishingly adept piece of flamenco styled classical guitar – quite possibly played on the soon to be ubiquitous Dobro – that gives a true flavour of a whisky-drenched  gumshoe coming to terms with the inadequacies of his choice of down at heel work.

And then one of the most sinister and threatening sequences you might ever hear in modern recording – a thudding bass, with flashing guitar stabs and swelling backing building to a crescendo of true ominous portent.

Another movie without dialogue that will shudder your speaker cones quite happily.

“It Never Rains” which closes the album gives us another well-observed panorama that seems to draw a line under the stories of three of the recognisable characters from the previous album in Juliet, Skater Girl and the romantic interest from “Tunnel Of Love”.  However, it’s scale seems dwarfed by the previous two songs.

The title song, “Love Over Gold”, is much-loved by the coterie of Dire Straits fans and yet for me it is the tune that lacks the scale of its album mates. It is a beautifully composed and constructed song but lacks an emotional connection. That said, I’m sure in 1982 it was a million couples “Our Song” even though I think it lapses into a more cliched territory that had been handled more interestingly in “Skateaway”.

In the company of the rest of the album, it lacks the interesting storytelling that so characterises the band’s work at the time.

Which leaves the conundrum that is “Industrial Disease”.

Another incredibly atmospheric introduction that leads into a song that is at times comedic and at others is so biting that it’s almost a British “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. It’s clever, it’s political and imaginatively performed – Knopfler playing Dr Parkinson for instance.

“Two men say they’re Jesus; one of them must be wrong” is a genuinely memorable piece of writing.

And this is it’s problem. I like it a lot but should it be sung by the Two Ronnies instead. Because it’s this kind of slightly jokey less serious tune to a basic rock roll beat that takes you via “Twisting By The Pool” to “Walk Of Life” and we all know how that ends.

To enjoy this album at all, you need to just put aside everything that came afterwards and see it in its context where it stuck out like a highly polished sore thumb in a world of new wave spikiness and pretty boy pop. It is fine musicianship in Vistavision formed with dexterity, imagination and intelligence which ultimately despite only being five songs long remains enormously satisfying if your prejudices can be ditched – and I fully accept that this could be hard but well worth the effort.

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FIT TO BURST

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In the light of the post on Everything But The Girl, many people recommended reading Tracy Thorn’s memoir “Bedsit Disco Queen” which I had happily enjoyed already but I would also wholeheartedly endorse. However, she made one especially poignant observation about the 1980s which is that now when it is dealt with in TV montages it’s all yuppies, puffball dresses, massive mobile phones and Miami Vice that seem to represent the times.

And yet, according to her, for most, the decade was one of simmering tensions, a world on the verge of imminent implosion.  Indeed much of the more memorable music of the time was written with current affairs as the backdrop – racial tension, homophobia, Cold War fear, apartheid, record unemployment, disaffected youth all were at the heart of great (dare I say pop) 45s of the time.

I won’t insult you by naming any of them.

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For me, this whole mood of the other side of the 80s is best encapsulated in the sound of the debut album from the Fine Young Cannibals. It is as edgy and angular as Dave Steele and Andy Cox’s dancing that accompanied every appearance. Of course, both of these players had come from a similarly agitated band The Beat (or The English Beat for our American friends or The British Beat for those from Australia!) who had themselves also picked out some difficult subject matter in their time – “Stand Down Margaret” for example.

Formed after the band split, the bendy-legged Cox and Steele auditioned many singers for their new operation until they found Roland Gift, similarly from Birmingham, and with a similar outlook but very different vocal style.

Once again, we can thank The Tube, C4’s Friday night music show, for giving us our first taste of the unique FYC sound when they premiered a film of “Johnny Come Home”, a familiar tale of those drawn to the bright lights of London. Indeed, this record (together with the smoky “Funny How Love Is”) gave off more than a whiff of a 1950s Soho Coffee Bar – especially when allied with the short-haired, v-necked look of the band.

Except there was this astonishing voice – which, dare I say, sounded remarkably  like a cross between Al Green and Al Jolson but with a barely suppressed aggression.

This wasn’t ska, nor was it soul, nor was it pop nor jazz, for that matter, but all of these things and none of them but with a very contemporary message and styling. If anything, the roots of it can be traced back to The Beat’s truly excellent 45, the fizzling “Too Nice To Talk To”.

Musos at the time (especially Paul Weller) used to constantly reference Colin Macinnes’s 50s beat novel “Absolute Beginners” – being made into a terrible movie at the time. I never really took to the book myself but its world which did seem exciting,  seemed to sound like “Johnny Come Home”.

As if mirroring the world outlined in Tracey Thorn’s 80s vision, Gift’s angsty vocal range, backed with the popping pizzicato basslines, pinpoint-sharp single note guitar stings and stripped down snare sound create a sonic landscape for the time – a world still dominated by huge divisions in all areas of life that had a habit sadly of bubbling to the surface.

“Blue” is a much deeper and more important song than its initial chart failure would indicate and definitely pins the band’s political colours to the mast while “Move To Work” makes Norman Tebbit’s ‘bike’ comment come across as the fatuous piece of cheap commentary that it was.

The final track, the manic “Like A Stranger” includes the strange gospel exhortation that “you’ve been too long in the institution” which similarly seems to thumb its nose at the establishment. Their stifled anger is not good-natured but heartfelt; but kept in check by the almost claustrophobic rhythms that rigidly control the album.

And it’s as if I’ve saved the best until last.

Well not the best, but certainly one of the most defining moments – the Elvis cover, “Suspicious Minds”. Firstly, this is not a period when Elvis was viewed with any particular reverence; nor should such a well-known work be tackled really under any circumstances. Yet it is bold, dangerous and reeks of the afore-mentioned suspicion.

This musical paranoia is entirely down to the incredible counterpoint of  Roland’s decidedly strange timbre against the instantly recognisable falsetto of that other well-known political firebrand of the times (and label mate) Jimmy Somerville, which creates an extraordinary almost other-worldly atmosphere. I find it reminiscent of those ‘death discs’ so popular in the early 60s – like “Johnny Remember Me” (interestingly also referenced by Bronski Beat).

Cover versions are always a source of debate but I have always felt that this was nothing if not supremely brave and it should be commended for that alone. Yet somehow it manages to weld its familiarity into the overall tenor of the whole album without sounding like a gimmick.

In retrospect, this album is uneven in its even-ness. The pent-up nature of its instrumentation, even when it lets loose a little on the slower tracks, tends to make the album lack a little light and shade. With their next album, which was three years in the making but a deserved worldwide smash, they had developed their work with layers of far more variety.

But this debut album that can barely be contained by its arrangements and so is as unmistakably unrelenting and tough as the world in which it was forged, even now.

And some of it, therefore, I find,  just extraordinarily original.

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NAILING JELLY TO THE WALL

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When pop music still ruled the world, the normal turn of events was that an artist released a single every four months and an album a year or every eighteen months at the latest. Dropping out of the spotlight meant potentially losing your fanbase and nobody wanted to risk that.

Of course, if you were at the top of your game, the expectation would be that you would follow up quickly and make your status with your fans even more bulletproof in case you had to disappear from view for a while to record new material or tour the world.

In 1985, Tears For Fears released ‘Songs From The Big Chair’. The whole world fell in love with that record – and they were right to. It was a bit New Wave (US version of that genre), a bit rock, a bit pop and littered with great tunes and riffs. “Shout” and “Head Over Heels” would dominate any album on their own and yet there was also the mighty “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” which though now hugely familiar should be considered a deserved classic but rather prophetic about the situation in which the two lads from Bath a little awkwardly found themselves.

As a band, they were not especially easy to classify and almost through determination to keep that sense of difference about themselves, with the world at their feet they disappeared for over four years.

When they came back with “Seeds Of Love” right at the end of 1989, they had become even more difficult to pin down.

And accordingly, it’s a very ambitious record but no less interesting for that – especially through its clever writing. However, on returning to “Seeds Of Love”  after so long, you realise that it is complex and so not an easy album to digest immediately. Remember there might only be eight songs, but not one is under four and a half minutes.

It favours many styles and many influences which when allied to an incredibly layered production could leave you feeling that you were listening to an unsung classic or a pretentious folly. I suspect it all depends on what mood you’re in when you dig this one out of the loft.

We begin with a drum crack, a bass riff repetition, a potpourri of electronic percussion, a whistling keyboard and then a mumbling vocal from Roland – so far so Tears For Fears and then comes a voice that bears no similarity to one we’ve ever heard on one of their recordings before. This, we find out later, is the soulful wail of their discovery, Oleta Adams (that’s right “Get Here” Oleta Adams) whom the band had found singing in a hotel bar in Kansas City. I know – how random is that..

This is “Woman In Chains” – a huge song with a powerful social message the equivalent of any late-period classic Motown. , not even damaged by Phil Collins over-busy drumming. TFF are still a duet but seemingly a completely different one from the one we remembered because Curt never sounded as if he had particularly gospel roots.

How do you follow that?

“Badman’s Song” – another even more epic builder perhaps a little more rocky but not much.  Lyrically, it feels more like “The Hurting” but in sound-wise this is starting to feel like an epic modern soul album. We’re two tracks in and it is already sounding immense and this is without the jazz interlude (very “Dream Of The Blue Turtles”).

Time for a let-up, one would imagine.

No chance. It’s time for the big hit single “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” – a song that sounds like every Beatles record from 1967 has been lashed together into a massive uplifting anthem with more hooks in it than a fisherman’s hat. I make no apologies for loving this record. There is just so much happening in it (not least that Curt’s back) – its sheer scale is vast. A commentary delivered about the world as they saw it – apparently written the day Margaret Thatcher (the “Politician Granny with high ideals”) was voted in again in 1987 – a world of inequality and vacuousness.

“Kick out the Style, bring back the Jam” – ouch! Another “kick in the balls” for Mr Weller?

“Advice For The Young At Heart” has more of a pop sensibility about it with another optimistic refrain but really the whole album is starting to feel as if it has taken the more obscure elements of ‘Songs From The Big Chair’ like “The Working Hour” and “I Believe” and then just stretched, layered and over-dubbed them for all they’re worth.

I would hazard that the jazzy “Standing On The Corner Of The Third World” also traces its roots back to the more experimental elements of previous b-sides (“Johnny Panic And The Bible Of Dreams” which you can find on the remaster was remixed into a Balearic classic) with fretless bass bouncing in and out of a shimmering backdrop of keys and backing singers. It’s another unusual but enjoyable piece, like “Swords And Knives” – an XTC tribute if ever there was one.

The album just builds and builds like a constantly inflating helium balloon and just when you think the inevitable explosion must occur, there comes the gentle deflation as the proceedings are rounded off by “Famous Last Words”, another paean for peace but it’s almost like “Abbey Road” and “The End”. The record just floats away into the aether. They know that this is it. It’s over. And although Roland continued the band for a couple more interesting recordings, Curt and he split up and didn’t speak for another 15 years.

The recording process was apparently fractious and for a band who had received huge fame without necessarily being able to cope with it, had treated their songwriting as a catharsis (their name derived from Janov’s Primal Scream therapy – heavy!) and had already scrapped one set of recordings in the four years they had spent trying to put this together, it’s hardly surprising.

They say it’s no fun if it’s too easy and it would be difficult to say that this album is fun but it has an intelligence and sincerity which underpins an album that just doesn’t stop building until the very last song. It is beautifully performed and produced but as I said at the start, you will need to make a large mug of tea and settle down in a comfortable chair to listen to it.

Whilst I never feel that it lapses into self-importance, It is one of the least casual so-called pop records you will ever hear. One that consciously takes the route of most resistance and succeeds nevertheless.

The lovely part of the story is that eventually, Roland and Curt did get back together again and did go out and tour the world visiting territories they had never been to -only to realise that they really had ruled the world and were still very much loved.

And nowhere more than the Philippines where so overwhelmed were they by an energetic and knowledgable crowd who had been sending setlist recommendations to them from the day their date was announced, came back year after year to play to ever more delighted crowds. Roland even tells the story onstage that when he’s back in England doing his weekly shop in Tesco’s and gets pointed out and asked what he’s doing now he tells anyone to look up “Tears For Fears in Manila” on youtube.

The band now seem happily at ease with each other and their popularity. And for a band that never took the easy path, it’s well deserved.

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