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 ..