Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2018: The Beths - Little Death

Regular blog readers will know this one was coming. ‘Little Death’ was probably my pick of a very decent bunch of tunes on The Beths’ debut album, Future Me Hates Me. 2018 was a huge year for the band, not only with the phenomenal impact that album made, but with extensive touring – UK, Europe, Australia, and the USA – they also made their mark on a global scale. A terrific band with the world at its feet.  

Monday, November 12, 2018

Album Review: Moby - Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt (2018)

A few years back, I couldn’t have cared less if I never heard another Moby album, ever. The uber producer’s 1999 effort, Play, pretty much destroyed any ongoing interest I had in the artist. Thanks mainly to the ridiculous level of exposure it received. For a few years around the turn of the millennium, Play was everywhere, and I became heartily sick of hearing it, or snippets of it even, especially as the musical backdrop for copious amounts of corporate advertising (in particular, see ‘Porcelain’). 

I’d been a fan of Moby’s early Nineties output, with club bangers like ‘Go’ and ‘Move’ being my introduction to his work. But Play took Moby into another stratosphere entirely with its crossover mix of ambient pop and cod-blues. And since Play, I’ve somehow managed to avoid everything else Moby has subsequently released. Until a few months back, that is, when in a moment of apparent weakness, I found myself downloading a gratis copy of his new album, Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt.

Of all the spontaneous decisions I’ve made in 2018 - mostly questionable ones - that has been one of my better choices, because Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt turned out to be a genuine revelation. It’s a long way removed from Play, and almost 20 years on, I can’t help but wonder what I might have missed in the interim. After all, Play was studio album number five, while Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt checks in as album number 15. That’s a whole lot of potential artistic development, right there. I’m also aware that post-Play albums like 18 (2002), and Hotel (2005), were massive sellers, so they can’t really have been all that bad. But only if you embrace the notion that units sold is an accurate representation of the quality on offer, which isn’t always a straightforward given. 

It could be that I just needed a lengthy break from Moby in order to appreciate his work again. Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt has made my return far more painless than I initially thought it might be. 

The album is refreshing in ways I never expected it would be: fragile, melancholic, haunting, and dripping with the existential angst we’re all bound to experience at some point along this journey. It’s jammed full of self-deprecation and insecurity. It feels a bit personal, like we’re privy to a “confession” in places … particularly when confronted by Moby’s own voice, be it spoken word or singing, as opposed to the multitude of guest vocalists who also feature (see Mindy Jones, Apollo Jane, Julie Mintz, plus others). 

It examines the state of the world through the eyes/voice of a middle-aged man who really isn’t all that happy with what he’s seeing in 2018 (or more accurately, 2016 and 2017 when the album was conceived). But there’s also some acceptance there. A resignation that we’ve little choice but to live with, and absorb or consume, the fear and disillusionment our infinite information/communication networks lumber us with every minute of every day. 

So, the lyrics are designed to provoke and challenge, but they’re cushioned, for the most part, by an almost unfashionable electronica backdrop, something of a throwback to trip hop’s best days. Moby’s own production is superb - it was recorded at home - and I think the word “lush” probably best describes the wider feel of the album, which clocks in at just under an hour. 

Highlights: ‘Mere Anarchy’, ‘Welcome To Hard Times’, ‘The Middle Is Gone’, and saving the best until last, ‘A Dark Cloud Is Coming’. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2018: Merk - Lucky Dilemma

Released as a single back in February, ‘Lucky Dilemma’ was something of a breakthrough solo release for ex-Fazerdaze guitarist Merk, aka Mark Perkins. Lifted off his Swordfish album, this hypnotic track has hooks in all the right places, and it earmarks Merk as a young pop talent well worth keeping a beady eye on. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Choice Kiwi Cuts 2018: DEAF - Truancy

With the end of the year nigh, over the course of the next six weeks or so, I want to share with you a dozen of my favourite “Kiwi” tunes (or clips) of 2018. My pick of the local stuff. Tunes that made me sit up and take notice during the year … 

Starting with DEAF, a Wellington band that gained a lot of traction with the release of its debut EP (get it here). That five-track effort included this quirky yet relatively dark post-punk gem, Truancy. I really loved this one.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Album Review: Antipole - Northern Flux (2017)

If there’s one thing I enjoy almost as much as I enjoy post-punk of a distinctly 1980s flavour, it’s post-punk of a distinctly 1980s flavour being performed by current day artists. Modern-day takes on a genre that simply refuses to go away quietly. The late 2017 Antipole album, Northern Flux, is just one recent example to capture my attention (and my affections).

I really don’t know very much about Antipole. Other than the fact that it’s the handle used by Norwegian Karl Morten Dahl (and friends) to spread the gospel according to the genre we call darkwave. Or goth, as it might once have been known. Even that feels like a rather cheap throwaway label to apply to Antipole’s art, but in truth, all of the album’s most obvious reference points stem directly from the dark post-punk minimalism of a bygone era. 

Northern Flux was on high rotation on my pod throughout the first half of 2018, after I stumbled across it on Bandcamp earlier this year. Each time I listened to it, I heard something new, yet also something from the past, and it really is a terrific example of an artist - or band, if you account for Dahl’s accomplices Paris Alexander and Eirene - successfully mining a formula from yester-year before adding a shiny new sheen. 

It’s a fairly simple formula. Well-worn and tested. Melodic guitar pop blended with icy synths to create music infused with atmosphere, texture, and layers of tension. See Joy Division and early Cure for the most obvious examples. But applying a formula, and doing it this well, are not always the same thing. 

There’s always the danger that any sequence of tunes which rely so heavily on the use of repetition - in this case, chord structure and a similarly hypnotic rhythm throughout - will ultimately result in an album which winds up being somewhat less than the full sum of its parts. There’s a risk that tracks tend to blend together as one, each fresh track being indecipherable from the previous one, and whilst Northern Flux occasionally skirts around the periphery of such peril, it is, for the most part, a hugely intoxicating and thoroughly absorbing listening experience. 

Highlights: ‘October Novel’, ‘Shadow Lover’, ‘All Alone’, ‘Narcissus’ (clip below), and the Joy Division cover ‘Insight’, which closes the album. 

Released on the Franco-Spanish Unknown Pleasures Records label, with 14 tracks clocking in at 64 minutes, Northern Flux is recommended for anyone who enjoys retro-styled pop music at the darker end of the spectrum. And without looking at anyone in particular (*hides mirror*), miserable but dedicated old post-punkers hell-bent on not letting go any of their long-since-departed youth. 

Postscript: This month (November) sees the release of an Antipole/Northern Flux remix project called Perspectives, which features work from the contemporary likes of Ash Code, Delphine Coma, Agent Side Grinder, Kill Shelter, Warsaw Pact, and others. You can grab a copy of that release from Antipole's Bandcamp page here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Gig Review: Radikal Guru, Laundry, Wellington, 26 October 2018

This is a not-particularly-complete review of Radikal Guru’s gig at Wellington’s Laundry last Friday night as I missed (maybe) half of it, but I still want to share a few words about the event given that I’d waited the best part of a decade to see the artist perform live. 

With the last train to the wilds of the Kapiti Coast locked in at just after 1am, and with the only later option being a $150-odd taxi fare, I was desperate for the main act to begin his set as soon as possible so I could make that train. That meant sitting through three or four local DJs before Radikal Guru announced his presence to a packed bar around midnight.

The build up was an enjoyable enough excursion into all facets of bass music - heavy dub, one drop, glitchy dubstep, some higher bpm stuff - with Ras Stone’s set of mostly rootsy material, plus some voiceover/toasting, being the best of a pretty good support bunch. 

Radikal Guru opened with a tribute to King Tubby, which seemed like an appropriate way to kick off a set which was, for the not-quite-hour or so I was there, drenched in the roots reggae flavours championed by the late great Jamaican producer. 

From there, non-original material was mashed together with original Radikal Guru stuff, and tunes like ‘Warning’ (off his Subconscious album) went down a treat with a crowd that was generally much younger than I had anticipated. 

You never know quite what you’re going to get when it comes to DJ “gigs”, but the Polish producer was in top form, which was an achievement in itself given his gruelling touring schedule. It also won’t have been particularly easy translating a lot of his original material into a live setting, especially at a small venue like Laundry, reliant as that work surely is on exploring space and sonic possibilities with all manner of in-house studio technology. 

But it was all too brief, all over in a flash really, and the bar was absolutely heaving by the time I was tasked with flying out the door to make that last god-forsaken train. 

No complaints, at just $10 on the door, as brief as it was, I felt a little humbled to be sharing the same rarefied air as an artist I’ve long admired from a distance. Thanks to Nice Up, Laundry, and the man himself.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Classic Album Review: The Clash - Combat Rock (1982)

Another guest contribution from Craig Stephen (thanks Craig) ... helping to fill in another glaring gap in the classic album ranks:

Of the 1977 punk crowd, only The Clash and The Jam were still standing by 1982, albeit neither would last long in their original line-ups. The Sex Pistols, The Adverts, Stiff Little Fingers, The Damned, et al, had either split up or had reached the peak of their talents.

The Clash’s longevity was largely due to the protagonists’ chameleon-like tendencies and their ability to latch on to new and old styles and make them their own. By the (British) spring of 1982 they were ready for what would be the final episode in the Westway Story: the combative Combat Rock. 

It would follow the double album London Calling and the triple Sandinista, but Combat Rock wrestled away the expansive (some say bloated) nature of those twin classics, with a strict two-sided, 12-track album. No dub versions nor any kids in the studio. It wasn’t how Mick Jones wanted it, but his plan for an 18-track double with the working title Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg was overruled.

A 2013 Bootleg only

The first half dozen tracks feature the radio-friendly lovelies: ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’, ‘Straight To Hell’ (they were fused together on a double A-side), ‘Rock the Casbah’, and ‘Know Your Rights’ (the first song to be issued in single format and a monumental flop in the UK). 

It is ‘Know Your Rights’ that opens the album, the buzzsaw guitar reminiscent of Duane Eddy accompanying Joe Strummer’s mischievous rather than angry vocals on the three fundamentals we are permitted. But, as he notes, in an impish manner, there’s a hook to each of them. 

“Murder is a crime ... unless it is done by a policeman – or an aristocrat.”

“You have the right to free speech … as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.”

Which brings us nicely to ‘Sean Flynn’, the song of the actor turned photojournalist, taken by insurgents in Cambodia and never seen again. Like the album as a whole (the focus on the Vietnam war, the cover shot taken on a rural rail track in Thailand), the song has an Asian feel about it, with Japanese or Korean-style drumming. There are only two verses and if the name of the protagonist wasn’t in the title you’d be hard pushed to figure out what the central figure was doing. 

From south-east Asia to the Middle East. ‘Rock the Casbah’, one of the genuine classic rock tracks of the early 80s without reeking of chauvinistic and outdated rock notions, is a critique of the banning of music in Iran: “By order of the prophet/ We ban that boogie sound/ Degenerate the faithful/ With that crazy Casbah sound.” 

To really appreciate it, listen to the version, in Arabic, by Rachid Taha. 

During the touring of the album, Strummer sported a mohawk, just like the one Robert de Niro had in Taxi Driver, and what’d’ya know but ‘Red Angel Dragnet’ is a paen to vigilantes and borrows from the film itself. Long-time Clash associate Kosmo Vinyl even mimics Travis Bickle in the film (“Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets"). 

Written by guitarist Paul Simonon, it was inspired by the killing of one of the Guardian Angels on a New York subway earlier that year. Nevertheless, it’s easy-on-the-ear homage to a bunch of well-meaning but perhaps misguided people might give some the impression vigilantism is a bona fide way of protecting the streets. 

As well as Vinyl, there are guest appearances by beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and graffiti-artist extraordinaire and sometime performer, Futura 2000 – the latter on ‘Overpowered by Funk’, whose title very much gives the game away. 

Ginsburg’s contribution to ‘Ghetto Defendant’ is in the form of a “voice of God” narrative. He begins the track and thereafter peppers it with a few words here and there, and while it seems as if his contribution - more of a mantra - is limited, his lines work well with Strummer’s narrator/ heckler routine. 

As with Sandinista, The Clash straddle and explore a world of music: ‘Overpowered By Funk’ delves into the burgeoning hip-hop scene of New York and 70s funk; ‘Straight To Hell’ and ‘Know Your Rights’ dabble with rockabilly, while ‘Car Jamming’ again highlights the band’s long-held love of reggae and dub.

Going back to Rat Patrol From Fort Bragg – while some of those tracks became B-sides the bulk has largely been unheard. So, given the time since its release now stretches to 36 years, it would seem appropriate to give the entire album an honorary release.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Album Review: Darren Watson - Too Many Millionaires (2018)

A few months back, Wellington bluesman Darren Watson made an honest and heartfelt social media confession about how mentally and physically exhausted he felt in the wake of his most recent New Zealand tour. 2018 has been a big year for Watson. A new album, Too Many Millionaires, recorded and duly self-released, followed by the obligatory promotional treadmill, capped off by a series of gigs hot-footing it around the country. To paraphrase Watson, there wasn’t much left in the tank. Which is perfectly understandable. It’s the musician’s equivalent of a sportsman fronting a post-match interview with the requisite “I left everything out there on the pitch” … 

As is so often the way for blues artists of a certain vintage, Watson just keeps getting better with age. Even if Watson himself is unlikely to buy into that type of lazy cliche or stereotype. After all, he’s been breaking through barriers for the 30-plus years he’s been doing this stuff. As a passionate student of the genre, living at the bottom of the world, plying his trade thousands of miles beyond the heart of the Mississippi delta, forging a career playing a brand of music that many would claim to be the sole preserve of black America. 

Which of course it isn’t. Watson proves that. As have others. But it can sometimes feel that way. Particularly for anyone craving any amount of authenticity beyond the barely palatable blues-rock crossover fare which frequented mainstream radio in the Seventies and Eighties. 

In terms of the album itself, critics far more knowledgeable than myself - especially when it comes to blues music - have been swift to label Too Many Millionaires as Watson’s best work yet. And from all accounts it rates as his most commercially successful album to date. 

It’s certainly one of the more stripped back and less complicated albums he’s ever released. Something that not only serves to highlight the quality of the lyrics on offer, it also brings the work of Watson’s band into sharp focus. In particular, the tight rhythm section, and Terry Casey’s artistry on the harmonica. 

As with past work, Watson is not shy about mining New Zealand’s rich - yet mostly unheralded - blues heritage, breathing fresh life back into a Bill Lake number on the title track, and paying tribute to local legend Rick Bryant on ‘That Guy Could Sing!’

On ‘National Guy’, Watson unrepentantly explores similar themes to one that got him into some hot water with the electoral commission a few years back … 

“If you wanna share some of mine, well, get to the back of the line” … 

Opener, ‘Hallelujah (Rich Man’s War), and ‘Un-Love Me’, appeal as the best of the rest, and but you’ll not find a dud track anywhere on Too Many Millionaires. 

The only reservation for me, is that after the closing strut of ‘Past Tense’, I’m still left wanting more, and at just eight tracks, running its full course at a few ticks over 32 minutes, the album is perhaps a little too short. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Classic Album Review: OST - Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Often primarily thought of as a Bee Gees album, the Saturday Night Fever OST is right up there as one of the most important soundtrack releases of the Seventies (if not beyond). 

Important, not only because it revived – in no uncertain terms – the flagging career of one of the best vocal groups ever heard around these parts, and not only because it includes three of the decade’s biggest-selling singles in ‘Night Fever’, ‘Stayin’ Alive’, and ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, but important because it was the album that finally moved the disco genre out of a few select and exclusive New York clubs to transport it firmly into the (global) mainstream. And let’s face it, despite John Travolta’s best dance moves, the movie itself was always unlikely to achieve such a feat on its own. In fact, seldom can any soundtrack have sold so many movie tickets.

The three aforementioned singles are obvious highlights, and the Gibb brothers culled a couple of tracks from earlier albums – such as ‘Jive Talkin’ off Main Course (1975), and ‘You Should Be Dancing’ off Children Of The World (1976) – to completely overshadow the best of the rest and effectively claim the album as one of their own. 

Other disco-era luminaries like Kool & The Gang, KC & The Sunshine Band, Tavares, Yvonne Elliman, and The Trammps all feature here, with varying degrees of quality control. 

For all of that, listening to the album in its entirety without resorting to the skip button can be extremely hard work indeed. Mainly on account of some of the symphonic tat sprinkled liberally throughout – the David Shire stuff and the like, cheesing us out in much the same way watching an old episode of the Love Boat would. But hey, it is a soundtrack, and those instrumental interludes are surely right there in the movie, so that is what we get. 

However, none of the negative points can detract from the fact that Saturday Night Fever remains a landmark release, even today, more than 40 years later. Not so much critically, but certainly commercially, and as much as I’ve tried to shake them, many of my own high school memories remain inextricably linked with this album, and that of the Grease OST a year or so later. 

Yeah, I know, I know … but there’s not much I can do about it now is there?

Monday, October 15, 2018

Terrorball's Cluster Funk

This blog’s favourite Hamiltonian, Terrorball, returns with more electro-funk goodness in the form of an album called Cluster Funk. Once again it is available as a name-your-price download on the Bandcamp platform. For this listener, the highlights come near the end, with ‘Lagoon’ and ‘2 Bit’ hitting all the right spots. The rest of it is not too bad either …