Saturday, October 12, 2019

Album Review: Minuit Machine - Infrarouge (2019)

I think it was probably one of those “free” The Blog That Celebrates Itself compilation album downloads that first introduced me to the music of Minuit Machine. A 2015 tribute album to The Smiths, where Minuit Machine - aka Amandine Stioui and Helene De Thoury - took on the unenviable and potentially quite thankless task of covering ‘How Soon Is Now?’, a track so beloved by particularly fussy fans of The Smiths, the duo was always flirting with fire.

But they somehow managed to pull it off with no little amount of credibility still intact; walls of Numan-esque synths combined with ice cold femme fatale-style vocals miraculously reinventing the feted tune, to leave it with distinctly haunted goth-rock aftertaste. It was, for me, the standout track on an otherwise uninspiring and ordinary tribute album.

That same niche but immensely satisfying formula is applied again on Infrarouge, Minuit Machine’s third studio album, released on the Synth Religion label earlier this year. Slow-burning rhythms push hard up against layers of dark foreboding synth, only to then bounce off, yet still complement, the duo's richly melodramatic vocals.

Infrarouge is something of a comeback album for the duo, a belated follow-up, after a brief hiatus, to 2014’s Live & Destroy and 2015’s Violent Rains. I’m not sure how Stioui spent the intervening years, but De Thoury has been working hard to carve out a successful “solo” career (as Hante.) within similar darkwave, synthwave, and goth-rock realms.

There’s drama aplenty in both the words and music found on Infrarouge; frequently claustrophobic yet still very grand and beautiful tunes that deal with the complexities of modern life and human relationships. With titles like ‘Chaos’, ‘Empty Shell’, ‘Fear of Missing Out’, ‘Sacrifice’, ‘Forgive Me For My Sins’, and one of the best, ‘Drgs’ … “we are doomed to stay alone, drugs, I need something to fill me up, I need something to kill the rage, drugs, the world is ending but I don’t care, we all die but I don’t care”… (whoa, steady on! - Shiny Happy Ed)

There’s also a much-improved fleshed-out remastered version of ‘I Am A Boy’, which first appeared on the duo’s debut EP of 2013, Blue Moon.

De Thoury wrote the music and produced the album, and I believe she’s responsible for most, if not all, of those delicious towering synths, while Stioui wrote the album’s lyrics and takes care of the vocals.

At ten tracks across 43-odd minutes, Infrarouge is a terrific album, something of a masterclass within its genre, by 2019 standards at least, and as comebacks go, this one is way better than anyone could have anticipated. 

One of my favourite albums of the year so far. 

Here's 'Forgive Me For My Sins' ...

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Album Review: Antipole - Radial Glare (2019)

Following on from the 2017 album, Northern Flux, and the excellent 2018 remix project, Perspectives, blog favourites Antipole returned last month with another full-length effort, Radial Glare.

Antipole is Trondheim-based Karl Morten Dahl, along with regular co-conspirators, the Brighton-based producer Paris Alexander, and vocalist Eirene. Just like those previous releases, Radial Glare is an intoxicating journey into the netherworlds of dark melodic coldwave, only this time around, the vocal palate is expanded to include a couple of tracks featuring Marc Lewis, who may (or may not) be better known for his work with post-punk outfit, The Snake Corps.

Radial Glare consists of 11 tracks, clocking in at just a few ticks over 45 minutes, and it’s a thoroughly absorbing listen from start to finish, with Dahl’s signature guitar style and careful exploitation of repetition being key to the album’s wonderfully hypnotic flow and wider feel. 

Icy keys/glacial synths add depth and texture, every track dripping with a weighty darkness and brooding atmosphere, and naturally Eirene’s often ethereal vocal – both orthodox and when buried deeper in the mix – only adds to this general sense of unease. 

Much of Alexander and Dahl’s production work is quite remarkable, and there are moments which hint at references to the work of the great Martin Hannett (Joy Division, New Order, many others) for the way the music is allowed to breathe, its use of space, its uncluttered melancholic vibe, and the notion that quite often, less is actually more.

I won’t single out highlights because everything here exists as part of a greater whole, there’s no filler, and after many listens over the past fortnight or so, Radial Glare has truly taken on a life of its own.

Here’s 'Syndrome' featuring Paris Alexander:

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Amazing Grace ...

I’m not Christian, and I don’t really believe in anything like a God or any sort of higher power. If anything, I’d describe myself as a humanist, without ever really being able to fully explain quite what that means other than the fact that I believe in science first and foremost, and my definition of “faith” is something akin to a personal code or an inner monologue to live life by. It’s complicated, but I do struggle with the idea that there’s some form of invisible force beyond that. Beyond science, or beyond a personal moral code. I think organised religion is controlling, manipulative, and the source of much global division. That much seems clear, to me, at least. 

However, I’ve written a little bit in the past (here) about how Rastafarianism as it relates to reggae music has impacted on me, and about how songs of praise or worship can be hugely invigorating and empowering for me on a personal level. Even if a lot of the reggae music deals with a mythical African King/Emperor I have very little understanding of, and certainly no first-hand experience of.

Equally, there’s something very compelling about black American gospel music. Something very powerful, and it’s never impacted upon me more than it did a couple of weeks back when I sat down inside a small - almost empty - inner city Sydney cinema to watch Amazing Grace, the Sydney Pollack-directed documentary about Aretha Franklin’s two-day/night performance stint at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles back in January of 1972. 

Those performances doubled as recording sessions, and those recordings formed the core of Franklin’s iconic live album, Amazing Grace. Franklin was assisted by the Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, but she’s the star. Or rather, her phenomenal voice is the star. It was as pure as honey in 1972, with Aretha still just a few months shy of her 30th birthday. 

The album was released later that year, and it went on to become the best-selling album of Franklin’s entire career, and the best-selling “gospel” album of all-time. It includes a mix of traditional gospel songs (‘Climbing Higher Mountains’, ‘God Will Take Care of You’, etc) and more recent fare like adaptations of the Carole King-penned ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Wholy Holy’, which had appeared on Gaye’s What’s Going On masterpiece of a year earlier. 

The release of Pollack’s raw grainy video/documentary footage, initially around 20-hours all up, proved to be far more problematic. There were issues aplenty, not the least of which was an inability to sync the audio with the video, something that was eventually achieved by some post-production miracle. After that, it was Franklin’s own reluctance to allow the edited version (something close to 90 minutes) to see the light of day which ensured the documentary was shelved for more than 40 years. Which, given how utterly inspirational most of that footage is, seems rather incredible. 

After Franklin died in August of 2018 her family gave the go ahead for the film’s release and it immediately became a festival hit, going on to achieve worldwide/mainstream release status in April of 2019. 

I was fully engrossed in Amazing Grace from start to finish. 90 minutes of virtual wall-to-wall gospel music. I was in complete awe of Franklin. In awe of MC James Cleveland. And in awe of the articulate preacher/Baptist Minister Clarence Franklin, Aretha’s father, who made a short cameo appearance (as did one Mick Jagger, as part of the gathered throng watching on). In awe of those songs. Songs of praise to a higher being I don’t even believe in. 

I left that cinema completely enthralled by the power of that music. If that’s what a true religious experience is meant to feel like, then sign, seal, and deliver me to the promised land. I’m ready. Well, almost … I may have just got a little bit carried away. 

Highly recommended. Unmissable, even.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Album Review: New Order - ∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif) New Order + Liam Gillick: So it goes ... (2019)

I’m not sure the world needed a New Order live album in 2019, but we’ve got one anyway.

The awkwardly (or ridiculously) titled ∑(No,12k,Lg,17Mif) New Order + Liam Gillick: So it goes ... was recorded live at the Old Granada Studios during the band’s five night residency in July of 2017, as part of that summer’s Manchester International Festival. 

The album features a 12-piece synthesizer ensemble with composer-arranger Joe Duddell, but naturally, what can’t be captured on the double CD or triple album set - despite being referenced in the title - are the visuals provided by renowned English NYC-based conceptual artist Liam Gillick. Perhaps there’s a DVD for that? 

To be honest, the additional synths barely make an impact and aren’t particularly obvious to my ears. The live warts n’all feel is rich or pure enough, but mostly the album is a little patchy in both content and execution. 

Certainly, anyone expecting a greatest hits-type setlist will be disappointed. None of the band’s early hits are included - no regular live favourites like ‘Temptation’, ‘Age of Consent’ or even ‘Blue Monday’ - but we do get a decent take on ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, plus middling singles like ‘Sub-culture’ and ‘Shellshock’. Also, there’s some Joy Division stuff - ‘Disorder’, ‘Decades’, and ‘Heart & Soul’, included amongst the 18 tracks on offer. 

It seems obvious that this set was more about giving less heralded album cuts an outing – see the likes of ‘All Day Long’, ‘Vanishing Point’, ‘Your Silent Face’, and ‘Elegia’. And given that vocals are one of the least impressive features of the release (sorry Barney), I should add that my favourites on the album are ‘Ultraviolence’ (minimal vocals) and a pretty epic instrumental opening track, ‘Times Change’ (off Republic). 

There are better New Order live releases out there – many fans will argue Live at Bestival 2012 easily trumps this one. In fact, there are probably better New Order live bootlegs out there. I picked this up because I’m a New Order completist, but really, I’m left with the feeling that this adds very little to the band’s wider legacy.  

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Classic Album Review: Primal Scream - Sonic Flower Groove (1987)

Craig Stephen revisits a fledgling Primal Scream …


It came as something as a surprise to Primal Scream fans - of which I am one, though my dedication has been tested over the past decade - that the second Scream compilation, Maximum Rock N Roll, contained anything pre-‘Loaded’. That seminal single - THE sound of 1990 - came a good five years after their first. But the previous effort of collecting the band’s singles, Dirty Hits, conspicuously omitted the twee-heavy seminal early efforts or anything from the debut album Sonic Flower Groove.

Maximum … partially redeemed that Stalinist rewrite of history by including ‘Velocity Girl’ (actually a B-side), and both ‘Gentle Tuesday’ and ‘Imperial’ from Sonic Flower Groove as well as ‘Ivy Ivy Ivy’ from the greasy, long-haired rock’n’roll churner of the eponymous second album of 1989. That album famously contained the semi-ballad ‘I'm Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have’ which was picked up by DJ Andy Weatherall, bastardised beyond belief into ‘Loaded’, and hey ho, off we go, to superstardom and industrial levels of drugs. 

I’ve never truly understood the reluctance to accept all of their history, as flawed as it is at times, but I guess that if an album failed to light the bonfire, they might well brush it off as an aberration. Though, if that was the case, the Scream would be within their rights to dismiss the past three studio albums. 

So, what of the flowers and garlands debut? An album that owed a huge debt to Love, The Byrds, and Tim Buckley, and was an essential part of the singles-focused twee/shambling scene of the mid to late 1980s. 

Regardless of its status within the band, it is a timeless masterpiece that I find easy to play over and over, and discover new chimes or riffs to enjoy each time. 

And there are riffs aplenty. On ‘Gentle Tuesday’, a monumental statue of string-driven beauty, as Gillespie utters his final verse, Jim Beattie strikes up an almighty 45-second or so Love-in of jangly-guitars-to-fade that left panties wet all over the planet. And so it goes: shades of garage rock get snippets of time amongst the indie pop frenzy with largely fey lyrics, sung by a pre-drugs (well, real ones anyway) Bobby Gillespie, ending in a gargantuan barrage of riffs, such as on ‘Treasure Trip’.  ‘Imperial’ shows a bit more ambition although it does contain a clear nod to The Byrds with Gillespie and co-writer Beattie attempting to be Wordsworth: “Being blind or build a shrine/ To vanquish takes away without return/ With chains you're bound/ The best died last the looking glass/ Exterminating and you might well find/ It's just a matter of time.” 

Even the ballads are beautiful, and this writer has never ever written a word of praise for a slow-mover. 

Contemporary reviewers seem intent on comparing the debut to what came after, which is a monumental mistake; it must be taken on its own accord. And yes, there is resemblance, to put it mildly, to The Byrds but if you think appropriating from elsewhere is a rarity then wake up and get to that coffee machine. Then listen to every record you have and ponder where each idea has come from. 

With the decline of the shambling scene and the realisation that they needed to move in a different direction, Primal Scream would soon encompass full-tilt garage before taking another 180 degree turn and landing at Screamadelica. Three albums, none of which sounded like the other, and so it would continue with each new record until 2002’s Evil Heat. The lesson learnt from Sonic Flower Groove was never to stand still and try to repeat what has already been done. 

Ironically, the impetus for this review was on entering an op shop and hearing the bars to ‘Silent Spring’ which closes the first side, of the vinyl version obviously. The young-at-heart ladies at the counter, none of whom struck me as proponents of Scottish twee pop, seemed to be enjoying Sonic Flower Groove, and happy to play something they would have soon put on the CD shelf, mingling with albums that, perhaps, are more akin to the bargain basement museums of second-handville. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Vinyl Files Part 10 ... Glen Campbell - The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album (1970)

For the final vinyl files offering, it’s not a case of saving the best until last, more the case of saving the first until last ... 

This little beastie, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album, by dint of my Mum’s whimsy and best intent, sometime around 1971 or 1972, became the first record I ever owned. I would have been six or seven years of age. A bold yellow price tag/sticker still adorns my near 50-year-old copy ... $2.50, which, I’m guessing, was something close to full price for a new record at the time.

As a child, I recall my older sister and I watching a lot of 70s television music “specials”, whatever the (old) NZBC deemed fit to air at the time; various incarnations of the Johnny Cash Show, the Bobbie Gentry Show, and Glen Campbell’s one-hour blocks of music blended with attempts at comedy. 

And naturally, local productions like Happen Inn, which featured Kiwi artists like Craig Scott, Ray Woolf, Bunny Walters, and my sister’s own favourite, Suzanne (Donaldson, later Lynch). These were formative influences on the family record collection, and for me personally, a gateway to other, much greater things. 

I’m not sure whether or not I expressed a specific interest in the music of Glen Campbell, but I suspect Mum buying this for me was merely a response to my own indignation about my sister building a fairly sizeable collection of Suzanne albums ... “here, have this, now shut up” ... not much more than a parental act of appeasement. 

Released in 1970, the album is collection of popular Campbell tunes as featured on his television series, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. All covers, it contains none of the big hits that established him as a country music/pop charts crossover icon. No ‘Wichita Lineman’, no ‘Galveston’, and thankfully it was a few years too early for the atrocity that is ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’. 

The Conway Twitty-penned ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ was the only single extracted, going Top 10 in the US, but other notable tracks/covers include ‘My Way’ (naturally), Paul Simon’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, and Jimmy Webb’s immortal ‘MacArthur Park’. 

Sadly, it doesn’t contain the only Campbell hit I’d later grow to truly love, ‘Gentle On My Mind’. 

Campbell’s prolonged decline and struggles with Alzheimer’s - he could barely recall the words to many of his biggest hits by the time he finally stopped performing a few years prior to his 2017 death (aged 81) - are well documented in the heartfelt 2014 documentary, I’ll Be Me. 

Well worth a look. 

Anyway, thanks for this one Mum … I think.

(The Vinyl Files is a short series of posts covering the best items in your blogger’s not very extensive vinyl collection) 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Vinyl Files Part 9 ... UB40 - Signing Off (1980)

Signing Off is one of the very few albums I’ve owned a copy of in every format - vinyl, cassette, CD, and digital. That’s no mere coincidence, it has been with me every step of the way on this journey through life as a music consumer/hoarder. I’ve checked the blog archives and I can scarcely believe I haven’t published anything about it before today.

But one of the problems with writing about the music of UB40 is the notion that they became so deeply unfashionable and hard to endure it seems almost pointless trying to convince any reader of the band’s critical worth. Long before the now well-publicised family bust-up that hastened the band’s demise, and the creation of several new half-arsed UB40 entities, the original collective had long since “sold out”. From about album four or five onwards - let’s say the start of the Labour of Love series of cover albums in order to put a stake in the ground - the band’s music became utterly devoid of any real creative integrity and merely a vehicle for some of the worst lightweight reggae fluff ever inflicted upon mankind. 

The music was/is simply unbearable, even if they had - by then - completely won over less discerning sections of the record-buying public. By the mid-90s, they were unrecognisable as the band that made Signing Off in 1980, one of the greatest and most utterly compelling debut reggae albums of all-time. The follow-up, Present Arms, was also quite special. 

Prior to the seismic shift in the band’s direction, UB40 were serious reggae artists first and foremost, a multicultural Birmingham-based collective with something important to say about an increasingly restless UK enduring its first outbreak of rampant Thatcherism and life-changing Tory rule. The opening handful of tracks more than hint at the band’s prevailing social conscience, with unguarded references to racism and colonialism in particular. 

On the opening track ‘Tyler’ - the true tale of Gary Tyler, a black teenager wrongfully convicted of the 1974 murder of a white teenager in smalltown Louisiana - the target is clear: 

“Tyler is guilty, the white judge has said so, what right do we have to say it’s not so … testify under pressure, a racist jury, government lawyers, it’s all for show; with rows of white faces, false accusations, he’s framed up for murder, they won’t let him go” … 

(Gary Tyler spent time on death row, before serving a life sentence, eventually being released in 2016 after serving 42 years) 

Then on ‘King’ … with reference to Martin Luther King: 

“You had a dream of a promised land, people of all nations walking hand in hand, but they’re not ready to accept that dream situation, yet … King, where are your people now? … chained and pacified, tried in vain to show them how, and for that you died” … 

And this from the brooding ‘Burden of Shame’ (still just four tracks in): 

“There are murders that we must account for, bloody deeds have been done in my name, criminal acts we must pay for, and our children will shoulder the blame … I’m a British subject, not proud of it, while I carry the burden of shame” … 

All of that contained within an opening 20-minute thrust; politically aware lyrics underpinned by the laidback grooves of the now signature UB40 sax, layers of percussion, a gentle probing bass, some clever and quite beautiful floaty synth excerpts, and vocalist Ali Campbell sounding for all the world like a repressed black man doomed to remain trapped in a white man’s body. It’s a simple enough formula, but one which produces quite exceptional (and timeless) results. 

After the brief instrumental interlude that is ‘Adella’, we then come to one of the album’s genuine highlights - and an eventual single lifted from the album - ‘I Think It's Going to Rain Today’. The dubby sax-infused ‘25%’ then provides for another brief instrumental break, before the band’s breakthrough single and the album’s masterpiece ‘Food For Thought’ reminds us that UB40 need not have compromised to the extent they eventually did in order to achieve commercial success. ‘Food For Thought’ was, of course, a major global smash with its infectious skank and silky smooth crossover leanings. The mournful ‘Little By Little’ and the upbeat instrumental title-track then close out the album with understated aplomb.

But it doesn’t quite end there. Signing Off also comes with a bonus EP - a separate 12-inch pressing with the vinyl edition; all three tracks as equally rewarding as the album proper, including the majestic 12-minute-plus opus ‘Madam Medusa’, an epic track which showcases some extraordinary percussion, before “Astro” Wilson adds a touch of old-school-style toasting as the sweet cherry on top. Throw in a soulful version of the dark standard ‘Strange Fruit’ and another riveting ska-paced instrumental in ‘Reefer Madness’ (does exactly what it says on the box) and you end up with one of the very best collections of UK reggae you’re ever likely to find. 

UB40 would never again scale such heights, and Signing Off presents the picture of a band positively bursting with fresh ideas. They clearly had something to say and despite possessing an undoubted hunger to attain mainstream success, something that ultimately destroyed the band, the message gets through undiluted and without compromise on this wonderful debut. 

Signing Off is, without question, an everythingsgonegreen Desert Island Disc. 

(The Vinyl Files is a short series of posts covering the best items in your blogger’s not very extensive vinyl collection) 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Gig Review: Blam Blam Blam, St Peters Hall, Paekakariki, 31 August 2019

Saturday nights don’t get much more Kiwiana than a quick drink at the Paekakariki pub, then popping over the road to the St Peters Village Hall for a nostalgia fuelled Blam Blam Blam reunion gig. That’s exactly how my Saturday night unfolded, and it was nothing short of terrific from start to finish. 

The Paekakariki set was the band’s sixth of seven reunion gigs played across the country in little more than a week, with the tour’s finale locked in for a matinee show at Wellington’s Meow on the Sunday. Personally, the Saturday night gig held a lot more appeal even if the surrounds were less auspicious and the venue itself - as a community trust-run hall - was unlicensed. There was just something so very fitting about it, and past experiences informed me that few venues in this part of the world could offer the same peak levels of acoustic clarity. I’d seen the band just once before, back in 1981, right at the start of their long and very fragmented musical journey. 38 years between drinks had been a long wait.

Phoenix Foundation dude, Luke Buda, offered a surprise support slot by throwing in a little bit of everything, managing to fit acoustic pop, guitar solos, loops, and keyboard-led power ballads into an impressive half hour set. Apparently, it was Buda’s very first live solo performance, something that I found hard to fathom, given his longevity and wider national-level profile. He was the perfect curtain-raiser. 

Blam Blam Blam - Don McGlashan (drums, euphonium, and vocals), Mark Bell (guitar), and Tim Mahon (bass) - took centre stage at 9.20pm and didn’t let up for something close to 100 minutes. Each new track - starting with rollicking instrumental ‘Dr Who’ and finishing with signature tune ‘No Depression in New Zealand’ - being greeted with large smiles and knowing nods by those in attendance. Which amounted to a packed hall of mostly 40 and 50-somethings. A few younger, and a few older, some local, and a lot of townies visiting the wilds for their own Saturday night fix. It was a full house. 

I already knew it, but I’ve probably never said it out loud before; if the gig confirmed one thing for me it is that Don McGlashan is a rare talent. A musical genius. A living breathing national treasure. I’d forgotten what a great drummer he is, and his stick work was a real feature of the night, but his mastery of the euphonium really is next level. That rarely used weapon (in a “pop” context, at least) added depth and texture to a number of key tracks, with the best example coming on an epic version of ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha (it’s bigger than both of us)’ near the end. That tune remains a genre-defying trip, all these years on. 

Mark Bell was flawless on guitar, driving tunes like ‘Battleship Grey’, ‘Businessmen’, and ‘Like My Job’ to inevitable peaks, while adding craft and subtlety on more eccentric stuff like ‘Got To Be Guilty’ and ‘Bystanders’. Tim Mahon was not without his moments either, holding things together with tight basslines, and providing a brilliant spoken cameo-vocal on what felt like a hugely ironic take on ‘Respect’ … where most in attendance were once those kids being asked to show “respect”, they’re now of an age where they’re the ones most likely demanding it. 

After virtually all of the band’s material from sole studio album ‘Luxury Length’ (and more) had been given an outing and the band downed tools, we knew it wasn’t over. The ‘No Depression’ box had yet to be ticked, so it was absolutely no surprise to see them return for a three-song encore; ‘Luxury Length’, ‘Time Enough’ and naturally, ‘No Depression’ to close. 

Well worth the wait, then. And a night made all the better for the presence of many old (literally) faces and friends amongst the crowd. If things don’t get more Kiwiana than that, they certainly don’t get much more enjoyable either.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Vinyl Files Part 8 ... Blondie - 'Dreaming' (single, 1979)

Changing focus for the Vinyl Files slightly, as it would be remiss of me not to feature at least one single or 45 amongst the records I’m covering in these blogposts, given that the format often forms a big part of most vinyl collections. 

This one, Blondie’s ‘Dreaming’, was a relatively late addition to my own collection and it landed in my lap more by accident than by design. But I love it, just as I loved the tune when it was first released (although evidently not enough to have picked up a copy back then). 

In 2009, when my significant other was celebrating a significant birthday, we decided to have a birthday meal at a local tapas bar with a group of friends. After the meal we would all (most of the group, at least) head up to San Fran (bar) on Wellington’s Cuba Street for a night of 80s new wave nostalgia at the popular retro night, Atomic. The 80s was the wider theme of the “party”, and we decided it would be fun to thank those who joined our celebration by presenting each person with either a 1970s or 1980s-themed vinyl single. We spent that afternoon rifling through the large selection of preloved vinyl at Real Groovy Records to select appropriate records to hand out later in the night. Everyone loved the gesture, a bit of swapping went on, but come the end of the night we found ourselves in possession of two “unclaimed” records – Blondie’s picture-sleeve ‘Dreaming’ 45, and something far less memorable by 80s chart-rockers Reo Speedwagon. 

I was quietly chuffed that of all the records purchased that day, I personally would be able to take home the Blondie 45. By default, on account of it being left behind.

As good as it undoubtedly is - good enough to peak at number two on the UK singles chart - it is baffling to me today that ‘Dreaming’ was chosen as the lead single off the band’s 1979 album Eat To The Beat, when you consider that’s the album which eventually spawned the number one hit single, ‘Atomic’. In fact, ‘Atomic’ was merely the fourth single released from the album, following ‘Dreaming’, ‘Union City Blue’, and the forgettable non-charting ‘The Hardest Part’ … indeed, ‘Atomic’ appears to have been released only as a very belated afterthought, midway through 1980, perhaps to follow-up or cash in on the success of the non-album single ‘Call Me’ (off the American Gigolo OST), which hit number one earlier that year. 

Apparently inspired by Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, the live-in-the-studio take of ‘Dreaming’ as released, is pretty decent, and it highlights, more than any other Blondie single, how crucial the frenetic stick work of drummer Clem Burke was to the band’s overall sound. Yet oddly, in reference to the track’s failure to hit number one, and more generally its lack of global impact, Burke believes his drumming held the song back: 

“The reason why ‘Dreaming’ came out the way it did is because (producer) Mike Chapman really gave me free rein and it was really a surprise. That take of ‘Dreaming’ was just me kind of blowing through the song. It's not like I expected that to be THE take. I was consciously overplaying just for the sake of it because it was a run-through. I always say ‘Dreaming’ would have been a bigger hit had I not played like that. It was Top 40, but it was never a huge hit.” 

Burke is clearly downplaying the significance of reaching number two in the UK. The single reached number 27 on the Billboard charts, and it peaked at number nine here in New Zealand. 

But more than anything else, my copy is a permanent reminder of a special night out with friends.

Eat To The Beat's ‘Sound-A-Sleep’ is on the flip.

(The Vinyl Files is a short series of posts covering the best items in your blogger’s not very extensive vinyl collection)

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Vinyl Files Part 7 ... The Cure - Japanese Whispers (1983)

Having released four albums by the end of 1982 - or five if you count Three Imaginary Boys (UK) and Boys Don’t Cry (US) as entirely separate works, which I don’t - each one markedly gloomier than the last, The Cure had reached something of a crossroads. 

The recording, release, and touring phases of the band’s desperately bleak fourth studio album, Pornography, had highlighted all sorts of problems, not the least of which were issues around Robert Smith’s depression, infighting over the band’s artistic direction, and debilitating levels of hard drug use. An alignment of events which took The Cure to the precipice, staring into a self-destructive abyss. It’s all there, laid bare, on Pornography. Which may or may not be the reason many Cure fans cite the album as the band’s pivotal work. 

Bassist Simon Gallup (temporarily) left the band after Pornography, and across late 1982 and all of 1983, The Cure embarked on a slightly more upbeat pop-embracing path, with Robert Smith honing his song-writing skills and repositioning himself as a master of the quirky love song. With that shift in focus came a series of standalone single releases and an EP - The Walk - and it’s those tracks which formed the core of what would prove to be the first (of 11, to date) Cure compilation albums, Japanese Whispers.

But Japanese Whispers was no ordinary compilation. It wasn’t a standard “best of” or “greatest hits” to-date set, and it concerned itself only with tracks which hadn’t featured on any of that first quartet of albums. Indeed, Japanese Whispers was simply a collection of the band’s post-Pornography singles through the late 1982 to late 1983 period. So, three singles - ‘Let’s Go To Bed’, ‘The Walk’, and ‘The Love Cats’ - and the associated B-sides, making it eight tracks all up. Yet oddly enough, it tends to play out like a regular album, and to my ears it’s a far more coherent piece of work than the transitional mixed bag studio album which followed in 1984, The Top. 
I suspect Japanese Whispers served as a softcore introduction for many US-based listeners, or any new pop-loving Cure fans emerging in the wake of increased radio play. Which itself was a direct result of the band’s commitment to a rather more inclusive “pop” aesthetic. The fact that ‘The Love Cats’ had given The Cure its first Top 10 hit (in the UK, at least) perhaps tells its own story. 
I’m really not 100 percent certain how this came to be in my vinyl collection. I have an idea, but I certainly can’t recall ever purchasing it, despite owning all of the previous Cure work on either vinyl or cassette. None of which survived the great enforced collection cull of 1992/1993. I mean, I’m a fan of the band, and I’ve subsequently replaced the stuff I sold with CDs or digital files, yet still, here sits Japanese Whispers, in all of its black wax glory, my only actual Cure “record”, a shiny happy testament to a band in recovery mode, and I can’t recall quite how it got there. 
(The Vinyl Files is a short series of posts covering the best items in your blogger’s not very extensive vinyl collection)