Saturday, December 15, 2012

Free Stuff: XLR8R and Radikal Guru

XLR8R magazine’s web equivalent has long been a great source for some of the best “dance” and electronic music downloads out there. In fact, the site offers so much more than that, but in terms of putting new stuff online and available for free downloading, XLR8R in my opinion remains the most reliable option when it comes to consistency and quality. Plus it’s easy to use.

It isn’t for everyone, XLR8R tends to veer on the side of bass music and more experimental genres within the wider dance music sphere, but that’s what gives it a significant point of difference. And it also means exposure is given to artists you wouldn’t normally hear on the radio or on some of the more mainstream dance music compilations.  

As is customary at this time of year, ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists for the calendar year are being compiled everywhere and naturally XLR8R has compiled its own list of the site’s top 100 downloads for 2012. And of course, it’s free, in the form of a zip file found at the foot of this link.

Radikal Guru is a remarkable artist. I was blown away by last year’s The Rootstepa album and rated it as my number one (or most listened to) album of 2011. This year he’s been less prolific with recorded output, but has remained active as an increasingly relevant live/touring performer.
Over at Soundcloud, here’s a couple of brand skanking new free downloads from the man himself … just in:

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lost Alternative 80s: Wall of Voodoo

Emerging from the LA punk scene in the late Seventies, Wall of Voodoo hit a career peak in 1983 with the spaghetti-western inspired track ‘Mexican Radio’, which broke through to the US Billboard Top 100. The album it was lifted from, Call of The West, broke into the US Top 50, but none of the other five studio albums released by the band managed to attain such lofty commercial heights. ‘Mexican Radio’ briefly went “global”, charting higher in places like New Zealand and Canada than it did in the band’s home country, and it remains easily the most recognisable track of the band’s decade long career.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review: Last Night A DJ Saved My Life … by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton (1999/2006)

Over the past few years I’ve been slowly working my way through several of the key texts that document the rich tapestry of (relatively) recent popular music history. There’s been Jon Savage’s seminal history of punk, ‘England’s Dreaming’, Simon Reynolds’ post-punk tome ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’, and most recently, ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’, the history of the disc jockey, courtesy of Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. As we head into 2013, the spine of a crisp brand new copy of Lloyd Bradley’s ‘Bass Culture’, a journey into Jamaican dub and the world of soundsystems, stares back at me – unread – from the bookshelf at the foot of the bed.

But it’s ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ that concerns me here. I’ll get around to reviewing the others eventually. First published in 1999, I picked up the updated 2006 edition of ‘Last Night’ a year or so ago, so that is the version under review here. And while that might not seem overly significant at first glance, the additional seven years of coverage is useful in terms of adding more perspective to the state of the DJ art as it exists today, in 2012, with the current “DJ-as-performer” scenario now firmly ensconced within mainstream culture – a very recent development, one that seemed highly improbable when the book was first conceived.
2 editions of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life
Brewster and Broughton kick things off by taking us way back, a full century, to the start of radio, drawing together the loose strands of the wider history of sound; the evolution of the gramophone, a quick foray into the earliest recordings, the first DJ broadcasts, and a look at where things were at on an international scale etc. Working my way through the early chapters I soon become aware that this is not only the history of the DJ, it’s the history of dance music, and more than that, it’s the story of a cultural phenomenon … the power music has to draw people together. To gather people from all backgrounds and creeds to one place, a mass gathering of like-minds, to celebrate a love of music, of dance, and of (gag reflex alert) other human beings. I’m sure there’s a thesis waiting to be written there: Nightclubs are the new churches, discuss.

Understanding the social impact of venues like the Wigan Casino in northern England, for example. Digesting the monumental influence clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Loft had on New York nightlife in the late Seventies and early Eighties – an influence that remains omnipresent today. And I personally had completely overlooked just how important the roles of the gay and (for want of a better word) “outsider” communities were in laying the foundations for the phenomenon we now know as clubbing.
Larry Levan of Paradise
Garage fame
And so we move from Northern Soul to Reggae, through to Disco and its offshoots like Hi Energy and House, from Soul to Hip Hop and its roots, then into more specific strands of contemporary dance music – Garage (both US and UK), Techno, Balearic, Acid House, and beyond. Right on up to the present day where discussion focuses on that most peculiar thing: the Superstar DJ, the guy who becomes the music he plays, the one who is now just like any other “artist” or band, a solo performer who creates something fresh from segments of someone else’s original piece of art. The age of the DJ-as-composer/producer. Recent examples would be the high profile likes of Tiesto, Armin van Buuren, Skrillex, and David Guetta (spit). Just compare and contrast the pop charts of 1987 with those of 2012 for the removal of any doubt about where the DJ now sits in terms of mainstream/public consciousness.
We get overviews on the key places people gathered, the cities that hosted them, so many of the more high profile clubs and venues being much shorter lived affairs than I’d previously imagined. And loose profiles of the messiahs who held court at those venues – the leading DJ’s themselves – often prove hugely revealing in their depth and relative intimacy. That might then be expanded to a whole scene, or linked to a specific genre. The birth and subsequent expansion of the Ibiza scene, for example, is an especially compelling section.

Of some wider social interest in one of the later chapters, there’s a look at the drug culture that surrounds popular music in general, but clubbing specifically. After talking us through that whole crazy Rave/random party scene in the UK, circa ’88-’93, there’s a discussion about the drugs that fuelled it – particularly the use of euphoric chems like ecstacy. We learn of the legislation that effectively pushed people back indoors, away from outdoor raves and festivals, back into licensed premises, and how that effectively reinvented – and reinvigorated – clubbing at a time when it was all but dying on its feet (no pun).

The cynical angle of course, is that the breweries and those with a vested interest in keeping alcohol at the forefront of the party scene evidently had a major say on legislation that banned public gatherings and killed the chem-orientated outdoor Rave scene. Whatever the case, it did result in the revival of “the nightclub” as primary place of worship, and from a law enforcement perspective, an element of control had returned. Or so you would think. The point is … the book doesn’t shy away from important social issues that otherwise might be regarded as peripheral to the dance music scene. It seeks to explain and add variations of colour in its search for context.

Tiesto asks what time it is ..

At the end of the near 600-page tome we get some charts – the ‘Wigan Casino 50’, ‘Loft 100’, ‘Warehouse 50’, ‘Hacienda 50’ etc – designed to present in quick reference form a list of the key tracks as they related to each major club or the scene it spawned. This is a fascinating section for anoraks like myself, and it seems like a perfect way to document the music – the key ingredient in all of this, remember – that propelled the DJ to such great heights in the first place. And don’t we all love a good list?

So it’s a great book – thoroughly researched, packed full of detail, unrelenting in its coverage and reach. Every bit the definitive history of the DJ (and dance music) it purports to be. Recommended.

Speaking of lists, here’s a not-so-totally-random everythingsgonegreen DJ Hall of Fame* (your author recognises a large element of bias and accepts the high likelihood of the list being instantly dismissed if your own favourite has missed the cut!):

Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker, Ashley Beedle, Jellybean Benitez, Matt Black, Prince Buster, Michael Capello, Dick Clark, Norman Cook, Carl Cox, Steve D’Acquisito, Coxsone Dodd, Double Dee & Steinski, Terry Farley, Alfredo Fiorito, Froggy, Grandmixer DST, Grandmaster Flash, Walter Gibbons, Francis Grasso, Bobby Guttadaro, Kool Herc, Tony Humphries, Steve Silk Hurley, Jam Master Jay, Norman Jay, Marshall Jefferson, Francois Kevorkian, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Ian Levine, David Mancuso, Derrick May, David Morales, Tom Moulton, Paul Oakenfold, John Peel, Gilles Peterson, Danny Rampling, Sasha, Kevin Saunderson, Nicky Siano, Tiesto, Pete Tong, King Tubby, Junior Vasquez, Armin van Buuren, Andy Weatherall.

*49 listed, there was going to be a nice round 50 but on account of recent revelations and consequent disgrace, one Jimmy Savile (arguably the UK’s first superstar DJ) has been omitted. As has current “star” David Guetta. Guetta’s omission is basically because he’s shit.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Album Review: The xx – Coexist (2012)

Following on from a more than useful debut album a few years back, the new full length release from The xx was eagerly anticipated in my house earlier this year. When it arrived – as Coexist – I have to say my initial feelings about it were less than complimentary, and in many ways it felt lightweight and throwaway in context to its benchmarking predecessor. I sat with it, gave it time, let it breathe, and digested it some more.

Yes, first impressions were that Coexist was a little too minimalist and bland for its own good, but it’s the sort of album that we’ll perhaps look back on in 18 months time and celebrate it for the vast number of remixes it spawned. If ever an album felt ripe for the addition of a little gloss it’s this one. Perhaps. I guess that will all depend on the quality of those remixes.
A compact 37-minute 11-song crawl, the album is so “samesy” at first, some tracks feel almost indistinguishable from others. It also feels just a little underdone, not much more than an exceptional demo, and a harsh critique of it would suggest it has the words “unfulfilled potential” written all over it. Coexist feels like it forms the core of a really solid release, but it lacks the requisite bite or substance to lift it beyond the ranks of the ordinary. Perhaps that’s where those remixers and producers will come in. Harsh? … again, perhaps.

If that is indeed harsh, then it is a harshness that comes from a sense of expectation. Maybe even over expectation. And if that expectation was based solely on what we got on the debut, then it was rather ill-conceived all along … on the basis that the first release was also a very stripped back, oftentimes sullen affair, why would the follow-up be any different? … if it’s party rock n roll yer after, then The xx is not the band for you.
What Coexist most certainly is though, is a Break-Up album. Possibly even The Break-Up Album of the year … if that sort of thing is your bag. Coexist is a bit like a wake. A brutal autopsy on a failed relationship. A death-by-one-thousand cuts, heartfelt, grievous journey into a world of heartache and despair. A one-way, one dimensional journey at that …  so don’t go looking for any last minute reconciliation, or anything remotely resembling a happy ending.

C'mon give us a smile ..
The boy/girl vocal thing is pivotal to everything of course, set as it is against a backdrop of vast open space, minimalistic chord structure, and the occasional tickle of a solitary keyboard. But this one is all about the songwriting, those inescapably bleak lyrics, drenched in self reprisal, with only the occasional flicker of denial, hope, or promise being allowed to peek through the multiple layers of inward pointing gloom.

I suppose it has actually grown on me (insert your own wart joke here) the more I’ve listened. It’s just so damned hard to take in one sitting, that’s all. Individually, buried within playlists, alongside more uplifting material, these songs tend to shine. Collectively though, across as long a half hour as you’re ever likely to wish for, these songs blend into one. A whole that is not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts.
So it’s a Break-Up album, no more, no less. I’m sure it’ll all feel so much better in the morning. Always does, apparently.

Er, the “highlights”: ‘Angels’, ‘Chained’, ‘Fiction’, ‘Sunset’, and ‘Swept Away’ …

Here’s a remix of ‘Chained’ … albeit one that is rather at odds with the ethos of the original version (upping the bpm factor tends to do that), but it is also a version that adds so much more texture and colour to the version found on the album, and it best exemplifies my earlier point about the potential of many tracks off Coexist to be extracted and refitted:

Lost Alternative 80s: Chaz Jankel

Chaz Jankel was probably best known as the keyboard player with Ian Dury’s Blockheads, but he did go on to enjoy some solo success and was a great talent in his own right. Not only is he credited with co-writing some of the best of the Blockheads’ output, he also became well established as a composer of film scores.

‘Questionnaire’ was a dancefloor-geared brass-tastic hit single from 1981 and arguably the highlight of his brief encounter with solo “fame”. This video was considered quite futuristic for its time and it received a lot of airplay during the early days of MTV.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Album Review: Cat Power - Sun (2012)

I’ve never really been a big fan of Cat Power. I enjoyed her album The Greatest from a few years back but generally Chan Marshall’s voice does nothing for me, and more often than not it has been her more bluesy work that has appealed the most – her husky vocal providing a perfect foil for the heavier sounds that particular genre inspires. One or two of her cover versions from earlier albums also held some attraction, but on the whole, I’ve always felt Cat Power albums were a touch on the boring side of bland (hey, I’m trying to be kind).

Sun, Cat Power’s 2012 full-length effort, all but abandons the blues in favour of a more pop-orientated approach ... and surprisingly enough (for me), it seems to work much better than I had anticipated. The album certainly appeals as perhaps the most intimate and original release of her career, the songwriting in particular being a key strength on this one. And the lyrics feel as though they come from a deeply personal place as Marshall sets out to offer insight into some of the more peculiar elements of the human condition. Even a cursory glance at a few of the song titles – ‘Always On My Own’, ‘Real Life’, ‘Human Being’ – tends to confirm as much.

I guess it is Marshall’s lack of vocal range that has irritated me most of all on past work, but on Sun she disguises those limitations well, and the album’s wider pop sensibility and superb instrumentation offers some respite there. It is because those pop hooks are subtle rather than generic or obvious that it works so well, and more generally, the album comes across as a cohesive piece of work.

The variety of styles on Sun – from slow electro to harder-edged rock – also ensures that boredom is never the factor it has been in the past and I found myself pretty much fully engaged from start to finish. There’s a real tension, a feeling of anxiety even, that permeates across the whole thing, even if it remains difficult to pinpoint exactly where that sense of angst comes from.

The best tracks include the opening sequence/quartet of ‘Cherokee’, ‘Sun’, ‘Ruin’ (the lead single), and the infectious ‘3,6,9’, but the journey remains enjoyable enough throughout; ‘Human Being’ provides a real highlight midway through, and look out too for the suitably restrained cameo performance of one Iggy Pop on the near 11-minute epic ‘Nothin’ But Time’ – a track that genuinely sounds like something a prime period Rolling Stones could have made their own circa 1972.

Overall, this is a surprisingly strong album and a very enjoyable listen. And while it doesn’t really alter my feelings of indifference about Cat Power’s earlier body of work, or make me a convert, Sun is a good one, a keeper, and it probably qualifies as Marshall’s most consistent effort to date.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lost Alternative 80s: Department S

Department S were perhaps the classic example of a band whose flame flickered brightly but all too briefly on the back of one exceptional hit record. That record was ‘Is Vic There?’ and it peaked at number 22 on the UK singles chart in early 1981. ‘Is Vic There?’ was just one of those great “new wave” tracks that seemed to capture the mood of the times perfectly, with a great pop hook and a sense of real urgency about it. The band split up soon after that short-lived peak – without releasing an album – only to reform sans original lead singer Vaughan Toulouse (RIP) in 2007. Incredibly enough, this re-jigged line-up continue to perform live today. The video below captures snippets of the band’s only appearance on TOTP. I’m not quite sure what Toulouse thought he was doing with that mic though ...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Lost Alternative 80s: The Monochrome Set

If you’d asked me a few years ago to name one indie act from the early 80s that would surely resist all offers or any temptation to reform for the nostalgia circuit I’d have gone for The Monochrome Set. Without question. And I’d have been completely wrong. I was aware there had been a reformation in the Nineties and a one-off set at Cherry Red’s 30th birthday bash in 2008, but I certainly wouldn’t have predicted yet more live gigging across the UK and Europe in 2011 and 2012.

I’d always (blindly) believed that this band was somehow above all of that, somehow pure in its 80s incarnation, almost the true definition of what it meant to be indie in its original form. Perhaps they were all of that and more ... and maybe they all just needed an ongoing outlet for their collective creativity – so who am I to judge?

One thing they can claim to be is hugely influential, with bands like The Smiths and Franz Ferdinand being the most notable disciples of a template that combined a quirky faux Sixties sound with a bunch of very clever – and often very funny – lyrics.

I once had a girlfriend who worshipped this otherwise almost forgotten band, and this track in particular was a regular backdrop to our lives together. I can still see her prancing around our damp little flat, glass of wine in one hand as she danced with her eyes closed, errantly spilling its contents as her hips swayed from side to side ... here’s the beautiful simplicity of The Monochrome Set with ‘Jet Set Junta’:

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lost Alternative 80s: Front 242

Belgian EBM/industrial music pioneers Front 242 are not exactly unknown in terms of “lost” Eighties bands, but they certainly never achieved a great deal of prominence within the mainstream. And compared to similar artists of the same ilk – say, the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Ministry – Front 242 were largely under-appreciated by all but the most hardcore fans of the EBM “genre”.

This track, 'Masterhit (parts 1 & 2)', from 1987, represents the absolute pinnacle of Front 242’s output (for me) and the album it appeared on – Official Version – was probably the band’s finest moment.

I’ve selected this one because it was special for me on a personal level – it was, back then, as I recall it, the track I used for my first – very amateurish – attempt at sampling. In a laughable attempt to replicate the genius of Tackhead, armed only with very limited equipment, I layered some English football commentary atop of cut up segments of 'Masterhit' to “create” something rather, um, different. I think I still have a cassette tape copy of that ill-advised effort hidden away in a box somewhere at the foot of the wardrobe. There’s a very good reason it has remained in that box for so many years and I doubt I’ll be digging it out again anytime soon ...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Lost Alternative 80s: The Sound

In a similar vein to the series of recent posts on (lost) 80s Dance classics, I thought I’d do something similar with one of my other favourite genres – 80s indie/alt rock.

To start, this is from The Sound, one of the era’s best but most forgotten bands, a four-piece that released two truly great albums in the form of Jeopardy (1980) and From The Lion’s Mouth (1981). The Sound was essentially Adrian Borland and friends, and the band went on to have mixed success through the decade, the first two (aforementioned) albums taking pride of place in its otherwise limited discography. Vocalist/guitarist Borland was a troubled soul, and he wound up committing suicide in 1999, throwing himself in front of an oncoming train …

Here's a sample of The Sound firing on all cylinders ... 'Resistance' is off Jeopardy, and 'The Fire' is off From The Lion's Mouth:

Radio With Pictures

A recent Facebook posting by a friend of mine relating to the pioneering pre-MTV 1980s New Zealand music television show Radio With Pictures, prompted me to recall just what a huge influence that particular show had on my own taste in music. RWP, as it became better known, introduced so much great new music to my world – not only the stuff from overseas, but homegrown music as well; gems from labels like Flying Nun probably wouldn’t have otherwise had much exposure beyond the confines of student radio, and even at that, student radio remained something of a mystery to the vast majority.

I became such a fan of the show I recall the sense of genuine loss if ever I missed an instalment. In its later years, by which time I’d acquired something (that used to be) called a VHS Recorder, I’d sit there for its hour-long duration (anorak optional), oblivious to everyone and everything else, hand hovering nervously over the ‘record’ button in case I missed something game changing …

In terms of other pre-MTV music television, there was also Ready To Roll, a chart-based countdown show that ran for half an hour on a Saturday evening, while a tweenie show called Shazam also enjoyed a short run, albeit with a much narrower brief.  Oh, and the midweek American catastrophe that was Solid Gold … if I nearly forgot about that one, it is merely because that one was utterly forgettable. That was generally it though, and it would have been almost inconceivable back then that one day we’d have 24/7 music television on multiple channels (and most of it, complete cack).

So it was the Radio With Pictures show late on a Sunday night – as a lead in to the weekly Sunday Horror – that the most discerning music consumer held out for. It was the true pioneer of the art of music television in this country, a show that combined casual chat with state-of-the-art video, and one that pushed boundaries beyond the conformist norms of generic chart shows and teen pop excesses. And the proliferation of local product, particularly in a post-punk context, made it unique and special.

It would take me on a series of short trips, in ecstatic three or four minute bursts … to somewhere exotic and far flung, or just as often somewhere more comfortable, familiar, and closer to home. It provided sound and visuals to a world I didn’t otherwise know very much about. Back then, I missed it at my peril.

Now, I just plain miss it.

(For me, the definitive RWP period was the Karyn Hay era, early to mid Eighties. I was a bit too young when Dr Rock presented the show in its formative years, and I could never really warm to Hay’s successor, Dick Driver, after he mocked my dancing style that time at the Albert pub in Palmy circa 1982 … when he was fronting a band called the Hip Singles in his pre-TV incarnation. Arse.)

Here’s a series of opening sequences for the show ... music from Auckland synthpop band Marginal Era ..



Monday, October 29, 2012

Album Review: Delilah – From The Roots Up (2012)

I realise I’m probably not the target demographic for Delilah’s debut album From The Roots Up, but it is nonetheless an album I feel compelled to make comment on given that it’s been unexpectedly high on my own pod rotation for the best part of the last couple of months. And I say I’m not the target demographic only on the presumption that lush dubby angsty girl pop couldn’t possibly appeal in any way, shape, or form to a grizzled late 40-something father of three. But I’m not so sure taste and wider appeal can be quite so easily framed, or accounted for in such cold demographic terms.

Delilah – aka Paloma Ayana Stoecker – is a 22-year-old Paris-born, London-raised, genre-defying songbird of such precocious talent it seems certain that From The Roots up is merely the first instalment in what will surely prove to be a long and successful career. Without doubt the album is as polished a debut effort as we’ll see all year.

I knew of Delilah some 18 months ago as the voice featuring on a number of dubby electronica tracks produced by Chase & Status, most notably on the hugely popular ‘Time’. But at that stage there was no real hint that she was pursuing a “solo” career in her own right, and to be fair I probably wouldn’t have noticed either way. Then one night about a year ago, driving along the M8 somewhere between Edinburgh and Glasgow, the rental car’s audio at full tilt, I suddenly heard ‘Go’ in all of its glory; wtf was this?! … isn’t this just a re-work of Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’? … yet it’s lush and cold all at the same time … and slighty bent … and twisted and dubby … disconnected somehow. And that voice, I knew it from somewhere? … I’d immediately been hooked by a strong sense of nostalgia, and seduced by the subtle poptastic charms of Delilah.

‘Go’ is one of several genuine highlights on an album that gets better with every listen. From The Roots Up blends strong songwriting with elements of chilly dubstep and high gloss electronica to produce an absorbing 45 minutes of pure pop, class of 2012 style.

There’s the angst-ridden ‘Breathe’, the melodic pop of ‘Love You So’, and of course there’s ‘Inside My Love’, an ambitious cover version of Minnie Ripperton’s finest moment. Every single track on the album has something going for it, and it certainly feels like a filler-free full-lengther; a rare thing in the dance/pop crossover album market these days.

Aside from ‘Inside My Love’, and the partial re-write of ‘Ain’t Nobody’ in the form of ‘Go’, a feat that Chaka herself labelled “genius”, the bulk of the album is written by Stoecker/Delilah, the vast majority of it while still in her late teens, and perhaps it is in the art of composition and arrangement that her most prodigious talents rest.

Most of all though … and here’s the rub … I enjoy From The Roots Up because there are parts of it where it feels like Delilah steps beyond the teenage girl in me to speak to the grown man; she may only be 22 and somewhat shy on genuine life experience, but somehow she gets “in”. Somehow Delilah transcends demographics and target markets to soundscape some of my inner most – and perhaps darkest – thoughts. More often than not with little more than a few jazzy bars of a solitary keyboard accompanying that highly addictive and unique voice.

Here’s ‘Go’:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Album Review: Air – Le Voyage Dans La Lune (2012)

As we edge closer to the end of another calendar year it occurs to me that I haven’t covered or reviewed even a fraction of the new album releases I’ve been listening to over the past ten months. So I thought it timely to start getting a few thoughts up before they lose whatever morsel of relevance they have. I’ll start with Air’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune, a February 2012 release and one I’ve returned to a few times over the course of the year.

Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin are well travelled in the art of soundtrack work, so when the press note accompanying the album’s release informed us that Le Voyage Dans La Lune had been inspired by a 1902 silent science fiction flick called A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) it seemed very much in sync with everything else the duo has given us to date. That it received a mixed bag response from critics and the general public alike was also rather in keeping with more recent appraisals of Air’s considerable output.

The strength of Air’s debut album Moon Safari nearly a decade and a half ago now has ensured that the duo’s work is always scrutinised with the highest of expectations in mind. Moon Safari was one of those albums that seemed to be everywhere at the time of its release, its sumptuous warmth was all encompassing to the extent that it challenged the very definition of the genre it was most commonly associated with – chill. It was more summery breeze than sub-Arctic blast. It also arrived at a time when French disco was coming as close to crossing over as it ever would, and the debut, with its club ready grooves, added no little momentum to that scene for a few years around the cusp of the century.   
So pretty much every subsequent release from Dunckel and Godin has been fated to pale in the shadow of Moon Safari. And it’s fair to say the duo’s seventh studio effort was always destined to suffer the same fate, despite the ambitious concept behind it; the idea that a century-old silent sci-fi classic, which previously would surely have only ever had a single piano accompaniment at best, could be revisited and soundtracked by the very best that post-millennium post-windows technology has to offer … well, as an idea it’s nothing if not a little indulgent and grand.

Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t quite match the ambition for around half of the album. When Air is on song, when the duo is firing, it works, and tracks like ‘Seven Stars’, ‘Sonic Armada’, and ‘Cosmic Trip’ would not look out of place sitting alongside the best of the rest in Air’s wider discography. But other tracks feel over-cooked in parts, a little bloated, and well … a bit too proggy for their own good.

Ultimately the best way to assess or enjoy Le Voyage Dans La Lune would be to hear it in its entirety while watching the film. I get that. That is the nature of the beast with this project, and a now common thread in Air’s work. And while that may be possible when the restored and colourised version of the film hits a festival theatre somewhere near you sometime soon, the fact remains that the vast majority of us listening to the music now are unlikely to have that context. Therefore it has to be judged for what it is. Or in the form available, as a digital download in my own case. And on that basis, Le Voyage Dans La Lune is a bumpy ride, the album as a standalone work feels lumpy and inconsistent, a bit pompous and full of itself even, and it won’t go down as one of the duo’s more realised pieces of work.

I guess the most frustrating thing about Air is that, just like the little girl with the curl in the nursery rhyme of yore, when they’re good they’re very very good, and when they’re bad … well, let’s just say there’s a smidgen of horror lurking there somewhere. One of the reasons I did return to this one through the year was because I wanted to like it, I wanted to give it another chance. I loved the stuff I did like, but in the end my finger was never too far from the “next” key on my pod, and it wasn’t an especially enjoyable start-to-finish listen.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

80s Dance Classic: Nitro Deluxe – This Brutal House

This trippy little early house number was a genuine monster in clubs across the globe for a year or so in 1987 through 1988, aided no doubt by the fact that it had at least two different incarnations, released about a year apart – firstly, I think, as ‘This Brutal House’ and later, as ‘Let’s Get Brutal’. It probably wasn’t heard quite as much outside the confines of clubland, but it stayed fresh, and was instantly ripe for any amount of remixing. This one is more firmly indebted to electro than many other early house standards, which were in the main more bpm-geared spawns of what we might otherwise have called disco.

Nitro Deluxe is actually Philadelphia’s Manny Scretching, who may or may not have died earlier this year … I’m thinking I saw an obit somewhere recently.

(I googled it but my browser for some perplexing reason kept defaulting to a search term of ‘Fanny Scratching’ … and from there I kinda lost what it was I was supposed to be searching for in the first place. Plus a little bit more of my own will to live)

80s Dance Classic: The Valentine Brothers - Money's Too Tight (To Mention)

Simply Red took this into the charts, but that nonetheless funky version isn’t really a patch on this bass-tastic original by the far too underappreciated Valentine Brothers.  Soul.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Album Review: Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man In The Universe (2012)

Bobby Womack’s colourful life story is so rich with melodrama, tragedy, and ultimately triumph, it’s not too difficult to imagine that sooner or later a warts and all blockbusting biopic will be in the offing. It will probably take someone of Spike Lee’s eminence to do it any real justice, but whatever form it takes, there won’t be a shortage of raw source material to draw from.

From his early life as a child guitar prodigy within a very musical family, to his troublesome early years and the controversy surrounding his marriage to mentor Sam Cooke’s widow. From the lost years of substance-induced oblivion, and the occasional aborted comeback, right on through to 2012, and this, the release of his latest album, The Bravest Man In The Universe. Throw in a recent colon cancer scare, and you soon realise that Womack, in addition to possessing one of soul music’s more distinctive voices, is the archetypal soul survivor.

Yes, the 2012 version of that voice is to all intent and purpose, rather shot, or at the very most now only a mere echo of what it once was. But soul was never about the perfect singing voice. It is about a feeling, an attitude, a struggle … soul, like almost every other genre, is simply an extension of the blues. And besides, ask anyone who has ever felt the full force of Womack’s seminal ‘Across 110th Street’ whether or not Womack’s take on soul has to be smooth to hit the mark. It is that gruff, lived-in vocal that gives him his power.

Now 68, and still battling serious health issues, Womack has launched yet another comeback with The Bravest Man In The Universe. Unfortunately for him, critics haven’t been overly kind thus far. The late Gil Scott Heron’s 2010 release I’m New Here set a high benchmark for any old-school soul survivor attempting a post-Millennium rebirth, and the fact that Womack also collaborated with I’m New Here producer Richard Russell on The Bravest Man means comparison between the two pieces of work is never far away … for better or for worse. A backlash that reeks of lazy, “done it, already-got-the-tee”, closed mindedness.  

Plus, the whole old-style-soul meets modern studio technology debate further exacerbated unfavourable comparison between Womack’s latest work and that of Gil Scott Heron. Jamie xx produced a feted remix version of I’m New Here (titled We’re New Here), which somehow seems to have put the spotlight firmly on the contribution of The Bravest Man’s co-producer Damon Albarn. Was Albarn simply trying to emulate his younger indie contemporary with his own dalliance into old style soul? … critics can be an unfairly cynical bunch at times and this angle has been explored relentlessly by those seeking to box up Womack’s effort.

But that’s surely the wrong way to look at it. Why not take The Bravest Man In The Universe for what it is? Consider it on its own merits? Why always the need to qualify and compare? Because that’s what critics do. I find myself doing it all the time. None of that stuff will have been important to Womack though, and I doubt it barely registers in terms of Albarn’s own motives. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Albarn has been down this road already, long before Jamie xx would have even conceived of such a concept. Albarn’s Gorillaz project has been nothing if not soulful and funky, and let’s not overlook Womack’s cameo role there either.

The Bravest Man In The Universe is a fine collaboration in its own right. There’s a real feeling of self examination and of possible redemption on the album. Womack reflects back on certain events in his life; he apologises, he asks for a morsel of forgiveness, and he seeks equal portion of rhyme and reason. It feels like it comes from deep within. Womack is evidently still searching for some form of peace, and when you wrap up so many emotional extremes in such a lived-in frayed-around-the-edges voice, it becomes quite compelling listening at times. Almost like watching someone you love progressively recover from a bad car crash, and willing them on every step of the way.

Albarn, along with Russell, does add a fresh production twist, yet not all of the tracks work. The album can feel a little uneven at first, a little front-loaded, but the highlights feel honest and perhaps even genuinely cathartic for Bobby Womack. Most of those high points can be found in the opening four tracks: the title track – an opening statement of intent pinned against a backdrop of pulsating bass and murky keyboard. The reflective ‘Please Forgive My Heart’. The interlude-like gospel tinged ‘Deep River’. And ‘Dayglo Reflection’ – a slightly oddball yet highly palatable hook up with Lana Del Rey.

The rest all just feels a bit meh, like the bolt had been shot in the opening sequence of tracks, and thereafter Womack struggles to retain the same sense of momentum.

So it isn’t The Poet - my first exposure to Womack’s work, several decades ago now - and it isn't as strong as any of his other more acclaimed pieces of work, but neither is it the disaster zone some tastemakers would have you believe. The Bravest Man In The Universe is simply Bobby Womack, soul survivor, getting by with a little help from some younger friends; Bobby Womack doing the one thing that he still does better than anything else. What’s not to like?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

80s Dance Classic: Donald Banks – Status Quo

Agit-rap? From fairly early on in the life of Hip hop, this one has a real go-go feel to it. Possibly outta Washington. Possibly not. From 1983, featuring a gruff-voiced jazzy kinda guy who from all accounts did very little else of note during his criminally underground recording career. Not to be confused with Don Banks, the Aussie dude, an actual jazz guy. But then you probably wouldn’t have made that connection anyway. One of them is clearly black. I loved this track for about a year after it turned up on a much loved mixtape circa 1986. And yes kids, that’s an actual mixtape of the antique cassette variety. Ask your Mum. Here’s 10 minutes of agitagogoprotohoprap from a funky guy with a fairly large chip on his shoulder:

Sunday, September 9, 2012

80s Dance Classic: General Caine – Where’s The Beef

Did somebody mention beef? Getting back to true “lost” classics, here’s General Caine’s ‘Where’s The Beef’ from 1984. Pure funk. George Clinton-esque, even. The banned ‘Crack Killed Applejack’ was probably the band’s (aka General Kane) most high profile track, but quite why this one remained largely ignored by all but only the most committed of clubbers, I’ll never know.

Friday, September 7, 2012

80s Dance Classic: Gary Clail & The On-U Sound Syndicate – Beef

I’m cheating a little bit here. Calling a track from the early ‘90s an “80s dance classic”. But I can do that. I’m allowed … it’s my blog. So jumping forward a little here, and in keeping with the On-U theme of recent posts, this is loudhailer man Gary Clail and the late great Bim Sherman with ‘Beef’. Just for anyone out there who doesn’t like the idea of eating beef. All one of you. This is the dancefloor geared ‘Future Mix’. The original album version was much more menacing. Slower paced, with better bass. But it also featured spooky abattoir sound effects – so I’ll spare you that rather haunting version. Hey, I’m all heart.

Oh, and I've just noticed that this is my 50th post to everythingsgonegreen ... now all I need is a few comments. *Holds breath* ...

Album Review: Adrian Sherwood – Survival And Resistance (2012)

The new Adrian Sherwood album, Survival And Resistance, is not quite what I was expecting. I’ve had a copy of it for nearly two weeks now and after listening to it a number of times, in a variety of different settings, encompassing a range of moods, I have to admit I’m finding it quite hard work.

It just goes to show: you can be a devoted fan, and know an artist’s work intimately over a prolonged period – in this case nearly three decades, but you can’t always predict what they’ll come up with next.

Okay, so he’s not universally recognised as a solo artist, and his best work has always been as a producer – primarily for his own On-U Sound imprint – but his two previous “solo” albums employed the same template of hard industrial-strength dub with a roots reggae tinge, and I’m genuinely surprised to see his third outing deviate so far from that tried and trusted formula.

That’s not always a bad thing of course. After all, change, artistic evolution, and progression beyond set boundaries are all things well worth embracing. If I’m honest, what I’m really struggling with in terms of Survival And Resistance is the notion that all of my own preconceptions about Mr Sherwood, and this album in particular, were so wide of the mark when it finally arrived. I don’t feel let down by it in any way, just um, a little bit challenged.
Billed in some quarters as Sherwood’s response to the 2011 London riots, not to mention wider global social and economic decay, I had fully expected Survival And Resistance to come out firing on all cylinders – with something loud, chaotic, and unrepentantly heavy. Or perhaps, given the album’s title, some hard-edged roots flavoured protest riddims.

What we get, however, is something far more mild and mellow. Something not unlike the sort of thing an ambitious mid-Nineties electronica act would have produced. Let’s just say that Survival And Resistance is more Massive Attack, or mid-tempo Primal Scream, than it is Tackhead or Pop Group (to name acts associated with Sherwood in the past).

My first listen was via headphones while walking along a deserted beach on a cold wintery Sunday morning, and I swear it was only the biting wind on my face and the volume key on my pod that kept me from nodding off. My second listen was also via headphones, this time on a crowded peak-hour commuter train, and yes ... this time I did actually fall asleep. Probably not quite what the good Mr Sherwood had intended ... this album is so laidback it’s practically horizontal.

It is also an album drenched with what feels like a super-sized dose of deep paranoia. George Oban’s bass provides an almost menacing pulse throughout, underpinning everything else. Only when you reach the end of the album’s ten-track 40-minute duration do you realise just how relentless and pivotal to everything the bass has been. When combined with the knob-twiddling and electronic wizardry of long-time Sherwood collaborator Crocodile, it helps create a dark lingering tension and a genuine sense of foreboding as the album progresses.

And if I describe it (above) as being mild and mellow by Sherwood’s standards, it’s merely because the whole thing is a brooding mass of strange and unusually low key experimental noise – it isn’t angry, or overly aggressive in any way. It isn’t in-yer-face. It doesn’t shout its underlying political and/or social manifesto; it simply seeks to push, prod, and prompt the listener on a cerebral level. It requires patience (and clearly, multiple repeat listens) before all of its subtle charms can be fully revealed.

Those charms include the sheer variety of sounds and instrumentation on offer – from all manner of electronic burpy and bleepy bits, to piano, synth, violin, cello, harp, and of course the trademark bluesy guitar work of two more veteran Sherwood collaborators, Crucial Tony and Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald. McDonald also contributes keyboards, and at times the downbeat nature of Survival And Resistance is reminiscent of McDonald’s best output under the ‘Little Axe’ alias, albeit less blues-based.

And naturally, there’s the full range of Sherwood’s unique brand of echo and dubby FX to indulge in. The production is practically faultless – just as you’d expect from any piece of work coming out of On-U Sound’s studio base in Ramsgate ... aka “The Care Home” (snigger – Ed).
There’s not much in the way of lyrical content. Vocals feature on just a couple of tracks – another old friend of Sherwood’s, Ghetto Priest, works some magic on ‘Trapped Here’, but I’m less impressed with ‘We Flick The Switch’, sung by someone called Lilli. That track feels almost contrived and rather superficial. More compelling is the trippy ‘U R Sound’, which features a number of (acid guru) Timothy Leary voice samples, and it probably rates as the best track on the album.

So yeah, that’s Survival And Resistance. For all of the positives, I’m still finding it quite hard work. In some ways – despite the presence of a strong supporting cast, and my own inability to grasp it immediately – it does feel like Sherwood’s most personal solo work yet. Where on previous albums he’s opted for a variety of vocalists to get his message across, this time around he’s largely content to let the beats do the talking.

Stand-outs: ‘Trapped Here’, ‘U R Sound’, ‘Starship Bahia’, ‘Two Semitones and a Raver’, and ‘Last Queen of England’.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Album Review: Keith Le Blanc – Stranger Than Fiction (1989)

As a follow-up to my post earlier today – see immediately below – I reviewed Keith Le Blanc’s Stranger Than Fiction album a few years back for another website. I thought I’d reproduce that review here ...
Keith Le Blanc loves percussion. More specifically, Keith Le Blanc loves the drums. And drumming. And sampling, sequencing, cutting, and pasting. And he’s the man behind some of the earliest, most primitive, and most innovative drum machine-programming known to man. Keith Le Blanc’s obsession at times borders on genius. All of those passions, and more, are evident on what I believe to be his most consistent piece of work to date; the 1989 album Stranger Than Fiction. (Although in saying that, his 1986 release Major Malfunction is more often cited by critics as his landmark work).
Well-travelled producer extraordinaire Le Blanc first made a name for himself as part of the original Sugarhill scene back in the early Eighties. He and the likes of Doug Wimbish and Skip ‘Little Axe’ McDonald - both of whom also feature on here - worked closely with Grandmaster Flash and various other early iconic rap artists. If I’m not mistaken, it was Le Blanc who provided the beats behind ‘The Message’ and he himself released one of the true electro classics from that era - ‘Malcolm X:No Sell Out’ - on the then-fledgling Tommy Boy label.
From there Le Blanc, Wimbish, and McDonald all went on to form the backbone behind the acclaimed hard dub/funk-orientated Tackhead, their output through the late Eighties and early Nineties being quite prolific - some of their best stuff coming out on Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label. Le Blanc & co. have also released work under a variety of other aliases (see: Fats Comet, Strange Parcels, among others) and Le Blanc himself has been quietly working his way around the fringes of a whole spectrum of different electronic genres during two decades of huge technological expansion. Quite simply, the man’s a legend. Or at least he should be.
Although Stranger Than Fiction might be considered slightly flawed due to some of the sudden, almost cut-throat changes of pace it inflicts upon the listener, it is - rather perversely - an album perhaps best listened to in one sitting; that every track is well worth listening to means that you’d only end up missing some of the best bits if you attempted to pick and mix to any great extent. Le Blanc samples and name checks a vast array of historic and iconic figures, everybody from Einstein (on ‘Einstein’ - oddly enough) to Count Basie (on ‘Count This’) to Lenny Bruce (on the superb and very funny closing track ‘Comedy Of Errors’). Vocalists - sampled or otherwise - include Gary Clail and the late Andy Fairley, while Le Blanc again surrounds himself with a first-class posse of top session men who provide the multiple layers atop of his eclectic beats.
What we end up with is an album that almost defies description; moments of what can only be described as pounding industrial Hip hop followed by interludes of ambient spaced-out synth - such as on the track ‘Men In Capsules’. There’s even a jazzy vibe to it in parts. A little bit of everything in fact. It’s also an album that (lyrically) doesn’t shy away from the various political and social issues of the day - thanks to plenty of clever sampling - but mostly it’s an album that contains a helluva lot of exceptional soundscaping work from the master himself. The fact remains - for all of his talent, for all that his work has had an enormous amount of influence across several of the more obscure genres in existence, and for all that he has worked with some of the very best names in the business, Keith Le Blanc is still relatively unknown (in a commercial sense).
Now, that really is stranger than fiction.

80s Dance Classic: Malcolm X - No Sell Out

Keith Le Blanc has spent the best part of the past 30 years flying beneath the mainstream music radar, but to many he’s considered one of the more influential beat-makers around. Whether it was his role in the formation and development of Hip hop as part of the legendary Sugarhill Gang (or at least, as part the Sugarhill label’s house band), or the work he’s produced as part of the industrial funk outfit Tackhead, Le Blanc has been at the cutting edge of dance music evolution for more than a quarter of a century. Yet he remains largely in the background, faceless, anonymous, and pretty much unheralded. I suspect he likes it that way, content to just keep doing what he does so well ... drumming, programming, sequencing, and sampling ... (plus doubtlessly a whole lot of other things ending with ‘ing’). Le Blanc has his own label, and he’s released a couple of extraordinary “solo” albums over the years but here’s something he did way back in 1983 for the Tommy Boy label:

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Just Browsing: Free stuff on Soundcloud ... Part Five: Dub Terminator

Dub Terminator is Auckland-based Chris McLay, a DJ/producer of some renown locally, but also a man very much in demand internationally when it comes to his remix and production work.

Dub Terminator has collaborated with a virtual who’s who of the international dub scene over the course of the past three years or so – whether he’s been applying production gloss to any number of earthy roots dubplates, or producing stuff with a more in-the-moment stepper-style twist, DT’s ability to transcend genres is the key to much of his prolific output. Most of which is already out there and available for free on Soundcloud (in fact, a range of sites).

In 2011, Dub Terminator’s ‘Big Up Riddim’ hit No.1 on Beatport’s reggae and dub chart, plus he’s already released a couple of albums – the superb 2010 collaboration with High Freequency, Soul Island Vol 1, and last year’s Babylon Annihilation. Pretty much all of it comes highly recommended.

Check it out: