Saturday, March 30, 2013

Album Review: My Bloody Valentine – mbv (2013)

The release of a brand new My Bloody Valentine album at the beginning of February created quite a stir. More than 20 years after the much feted Loveless (1991) was unleashed on an unsuspecting world we finally had the long promised follow-up. The reaction was entirely predictable, and MBV fans across the planet were once again able to indulge in a feeding frenzy of unrestrained adulation. But does the album – simply titled mbv – match the hype?

Well, I suppose I should start with a disclaimer: I’m not one of those fans. I quite like the band’s 1988 debut album Isn’t Anything, but I’ve never been overly passionate about Loveless, an album that seems to have taken on a life of its own since the relatively humble (if not muted) response it received at the time of its release.
And when I say I “quite like” Isn’t Anything, what I actually mean is that I quite like it as an album for a specific mood. Something to lose myself in when things aren’t going especially well – it might even be regarded as an “angry place” for me (layers of guitar, walls of feedback, best appreciated loud). Even at that, for such a mood, there are dozens of other albums I’ll turn to before Isn’t Anything.

So, I’m probably not what you would call an avid My Bloody Valentine fan. Over the years I’ve tended to regard the band (aka Kevin Shields, Bilinda Butcher, and friends) as being somewhat one dimensional. What they do, they do well, but the widely celebrated EPs and the two albums were more than enough. Did we really need, some 20-plus years on, a third offering of what amounts to pretty much the same thing again?

I recall reading some years back about Shields and the ongoing struggle he faced to produce an adequate follow-up to Loveless. From all accounts the man is a sonic perfectionist who set the bar so high, the whole thing wound up becoming impossible. Compromise, it seemed, was not a word he was familiar with. If it wasn’t just right, it wasn’t going to see the light of day. His efforts to replicate the “spirit” and energy of Loveless proved, um, fruitless. The band broke up in 1996, with the album “three-quarters finished”, Shields got on with his life, and that, we all thought, was that.

Then, in 2007, out of nowhere, Shields announced that MBV had reformed. By 2008, the band was very much in demand on the festival circuit; more often than not as headliners. Which is quite odd really, when you stop to consider that back in the day the words “My Bloody Valentine” were just as likely to have been found loitering amid the bill’s fine print. 

The return as a live outfit was an obvious catalyst for Shields revisiting the previously shelved material. He spoke candidly of the partially finished album at the time ... “it just got dumped, but it was worth dumping. It was dead. It hadn't got that spirit, that life in it” ... half a dozen years on, writing as an observer – rather than as a fan – it is difficult to see what has changed.
Same old MBV
Certainly there is nothing new to MBV’s approach on the new album ... layers of squalling slightly out-of-tune guitar (check), blurred vocals (check), heavy on over-dubbing and other assorted studio wizardry (check), and apart from one suspiciously “pop” sounding tune (a track called ‘New You’, which features Butcher on vocals), there’s very little on mbv that grabs me or excites me.

Popular music website Pitchfork – while rating the album a positively gushing 9.1/10 – made the following observation ... “through the 1990s Kevin Shields often talked about jungle, what it meant to him, and how some of the ideas behind it were making their way into a new (MBV) album. He was not alone in this, but mixing drum'n'bass' whooshing walls of percussion with oceanic shoegaze seemed a natural pairing” ...

Yet, for me, none of that actually rings true. Those guys must be listening to a different album. Those “ideas” aren’t immediately apparent on mbv. In terms of “drum’n’bass” and any variation thereof, all I personally hear is a muddy drum sound and a bass sometimes lost so deep in the mix as to render it almost superfluous. Basically, I just don’t get it.

The whole thing feels a little too heavily indebted to shoegaze’s early Nineties heyday for my liking. That’s perhaps understandable, but nothing really distinguishes it from past work, and if you ask me, this whole “new mbv” thing has turned out to be something of an anti climax. I’m only thankful I didn’t have any great expectations in the first place.

I’ll probably end up giving it another couple of spins in attempt to uncover whatever it is I’ve missed, but right now that doesn’t feel like an especially appetising prospect. Right now I’m struggling to see what others see, and it feels – as with Loveless – a little bit like I’ve been excluded from someone’s special secret.

Here's 'She Found Now' ...

Ruane EP (2013) … and the Skeptics

One of the best things I’ve had on my pod over the past few weeks has been a great little EP offering from Ruane.

“Ruane” is Nick Roughan, ace sound engineer and producer, once of Palmerston North’s very own Skeptics.
According to the download’s blurb, the Ruane EP was conceived and created during archiving sessions for a documentary on the Skeptics over the course of 2011 and 2012.
The EP is a well produced set of five quite melancholic instrumental/electronic tracks. The mood feels a bit dark and challenging at times, but there’s a nice ebb and flow about these compositions, and it’s a pretty rewarding listen overall.

I’m not really sure if Ruane will amount to anything more than this intriguing one-off project, but Roughan has always been worth keeping a beady eye on, and this is a quality name-yer-price download experience.


I actually went to high school with (the then “Nicky”) Roughan, and although we barely knew each other, my first encounter with the Skeptics, or an early incarnation of the band, was a lunch hour gig, circa 1980, in the otherwise tranquil surrounds of Palmerston North’s Awatapu College Library. I recall it because never before had I encountered music quite so loud, raw, and experimental. The concept of ‘industrial strength noise as intelligent art’ was not something I was overly familiar with at the time.

I saw the band a few more times over the next couple of years, at least once in that hub of Palmy creativity otherwise known as Square Edge, it may have even been within the confines of the band’s very own Snailclamps venue at the rear of that building (it’s all a bit hazy), and possibly once or twice more in Wellington during later years.
The band’s wider local influence speaks for itself, and while cult status was secured as a bewildering live act in the Eighties, the Skeptics’ longer term legacy is best appreciated in the form of a number of highly coveted recordings, not the least of which is the fine Amalgam album.

Vocalist David D’Ath’s tragic death – due to that bastard we know and despise as leukaemia – brought things to a sad close in 1990, but not before the Skeptics had written their own special chapter in Kiwi underground rock music’s rich and colourful history.

I’ll leave you with this ‘Rocked The Nation’ clip which profiles the Skeptics’ most controversial moment, the banned ‘AFFCO’ video. It features D’Ath on vocals, and in the starring role, plus Roughan speaking near the end (despite being incorrectly tagged in the clip as someone called Nick “Roughman”).


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Classic Album Review: David Bowie - ChangesBowie (1990)

David Bowie’s recent comeback album was a timely reminder of the relevance of an artist who has had a profound influence on pop music throughout my lifetime. A man who transcends the “three G’s” of music consumption: generation, genre, and gender. I’ve got a fair few Bowie albums in my collection, the highpoint of which is surely the 1972 landmark, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

However, I only have one compilation album in that set, the 1990 release ChangesBowie.

Not to be confused with the 1976 “best of” album, ChangesOneBowie, or its inferior ill-fated 1981 companion release, ChangesTwoBowie, this one is something of a hybrid of both. Indeed, it compiles the entire contents of ChangesOne, adds the essential ‘Heroes’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’, and ‘Fashion’, plus four singles from Bowie’s mid-Eighties Serious Moonlight period including ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘China Girl’.

Subsequent to 1990, of course, we’ve seen multiple David Bowie “best of” packages flood the market, but ChangesBowie probably represents one of the more concise guides to his more mainstream work, an ideal starting point for beginners, and sufficient for the casual fan looking for an overview.

not this ..
.. or this

But it’s not quite enough for me, and far from definitive. Comprising of just 18 tracks on a single CD, how could it be? That may seem more than enough for the unfussy observer, but without even starting to scratch the surface, I can think of at least another 18 tracks, right here and now, that could also have made the cut – all pre-1990. The plain truth is, this album barely tells half the story.

With Bowie having revealed so many faces, and worn so many masks over the years, somehow always managing to position himself on the periphery of the latest trend, a single CD is never going to do Bowie’s career justice, and I’m afraid that is all ChangesBowie ultimately amounts to.
Highlights include the landmark ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Jean Genie’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘Golden Years’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’, and ‘Fashion’ … but I’d have preferred the original version of ‘Fame’ over the ‘Fame ‘90’ remix, and am even less convinced by the disappointing ‘Modern Love’, and the simply awful ‘Blue Jean’.

Meanwhile, the absence of ‘Starman’, ‘Sorrow’, and ‘Sound And Vision’ is unforgivable.

Here’s an (imaginary) Alternative ChangesBowie compilation (hey indulge me!), to include another 18 tracks NOT FOUND on here, all stuff that was out prior to this album’s 1990 release date – picking up the best of the rest, whilst carefully avoiding some of his earliest incarnations (‘Laughing Gnome’ anyone?) and his worst commercial abominations (such as ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Tonight’):

An AlternativeChanges then: ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, ‘All The Young Dudes’, ‘Five Years’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘RocknRoll Suicide’, ‘Starman’, ‘Life On Mars’, ‘Station To Station’ (live), ‘Sorrow’, ‘Fame’ (the original please), ‘Sound And Vision’, ‘Wild Is The Wind’, ‘1984’, ‘DJ’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, ‘Under Pressure’ (with Queen), ‘Cat People’, and ‘This Is Not America’ (with Pat Metheny);

Read it and weep.
Here’s David Bowie, class of 1977, performing ‘Heroes’ on Marc Bolan’s television show … Bolan of course being a glam-era icon in his own right:


Album Review: David Bowie - The Next Day (2013)

If you read the UK music press – or rather, if you “believe” the UK music press – you’d be convinced that David Bowie’s new album The Next Day was something akin to a second coming. A few of the more hyperbolic sections of the media have gone so far as to label it “the greatest comeback in Rock history”.

What’s most fascinating about that, is that people still really care about David Bowie. That pop music’s perennial chameleon is still capable of generating a serious buzz, still up there as one of the big stories, and still provoking outrageous hyperbole. At 66 years of age, no less.

Effectively, that’s all that we’re celebrating here. It isn’t the greatest comeback in Rock history. I’d be hard pressed to tell you what is, but The Next Day just isn’t it.
For all that it is in fact a terrific album by 2013 standards so far, it isn’t even anything close to David Bowie’s very best work.

But as we know, Bowie’s “very best” is a pretty high benchmark. One he’s been struggling to achieve since the release of Scary Monsters back in 1980.

I really enjoyed the fine Heathen album from around a decade ago, but Bowie for me has always been the ultimate reference point for Seventies glam, androgynous chic, and a cutting edge icon for a certain generation. And the truth is you have to go back four decades to know Bowie in his prime.

Even seeing him live at his commercial peak in 1983 felt anti-climatic for me, in spite of the chart success he was enjoying at the time, his most creative years had almost certainly been and gone.
There’s been the odd flash of brilliance since, but after 2003’s Reality album and a major health scare a year or so later, Bowie’s been more or less playing a new role, that of quiet family man. Any new work would only be of curiosity value, and little more than a bonus for collectors.

To be fair, we’ve ended up with a quite a lot more than that – The Next Day proving to be a very welcome, if entirely unexpected, addition to the vast (and mixed) Bowie discography.

Rock God
The album’s main strength is the sheer amount of variety on offer – from unrepentant rockers (‘The Next Day’, ‘If You Can See Me’), to more straightforward pop (‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’), to intriguing introspective numbers (‘Where Are We Now’), and experimental slower ballads (the closer, ‘Heat’).

Bowie’s voice has generally held up well, and if age has added a certain vulnerability to it, there’s a sense that what he’s singing about is all the more believable simply because he’s lived it. There’s moments where we experience a softer, less imposing version of the man, and, gasp, times where Bowie seems almost happy to be human again.

Lyrical themes include war in the Middle East, religion, love, lust, the art of aging gracefully, and more generally questions about how we’re continually managing to fuck things up so irretrievably.  

Inevitably, the production is strong, and a major feature, just as you’d expect with long-time Bowie cohort Tony Visconti back at the controls.

Bowie’s standing as a Rock God can never be disputed and his influence across the last four decades is there for all to marvel at, no dispute, but in a few years time The Next Day won’t be recalled among his best half dozen or so albums, it just won’t.

It is however a wonderful belated footnote at the end of a long career, and the album very probably includes, alongside stuff from 2002’s Heathen, some of his best work in 30 years.

That’s more than enough, surely?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Classic Album Review: New Order - Substance (1987)

We’ve seen a number of New Order compilations released in recent years, something that rightly and accurately reflects the enduring popularity of a band that effectively peaked in the late Eighties. However, whether it is a Best Of, a Rest Of, or a straightforward singles compilation, none of them quite capture the true essence of New Order in the way that Substance does. Released in 1987, this is the original compilation of hits covering the first six years of the band’s existence. And how!

As any fan of the band will tell you, New Order (or Factory) weren’t big on the idea of including singles on the standard album releases at first, so a number of these early tracks used to be quite hard to track down. Which was a real shame, because some of that early stuff ranks right up there with the band’s best work, and thankfully Substance addresses this in no uncertain terms. 

Substance is a double CD set with (mostly or all?) 12” versions of the band’s first dozen “singles” on the first CD, and all of the corresponding B-sides on the second CD.

Such was the consistent quality of New Order’s output it is difficult to rate one above the other, but the A-side CD probably just shades it. As each is compiled in chronological release-date order, we get a compelling insight as to how the band evolved from the ashes of Joy Division to become crossover pioneers of the electronic dance music (soon to become “Techno”) scene. Thoroughly recommended.

10 New Order Essentials: ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Temptation’ (clip below), ‘Everything’s Gone Green’, ‘Perfect Kiss’, ‘Ceremony’, ‘Subculture’, ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, ‘True Faith’, ‘Procession’, and ‘Thieves Like Us’.

Classic Album Review: New Order - Movement (1981)

Movement may well have been New Order’s debut album, the first in a series of acclaimed releases that more or less defined the Eighties for many, but it was also very much a transitional album for a band still grieving the loss of its lead singer. For all that it was “officially” a debut, it was also a follow-up to all that went before … and given the circumstances, it really couldn’t have been any other way.

It also stands as something of an oddity in the New Order catalogue in that it most definitely isn’t a dance album. No matter how closely you listen, you’ll be hard pressed to identify any sign whatsoever that this band would eventually provide a significant bridge between low key angst-ridden Indie rock and the rather more glossy Acid House/Techno evolution starting to take shape across the Atlantic in the nightclubs of Chicago and Detroit.

And again … given the circumstances, it really couldn’t be any other way. Bright lights, dancing, joy, and feelings of euphoria definitely weren’t on this band’s agenda back in 1981 when Movement was released, and certainly not part of its makeup when the album was conceived in late 1980/early 1981, during the weeks and months after the death of Ian Curtis and the demise of Joy Division.

Movement’s bleak themes and grey soundscapes, its angular guitars and icy synths, are not vastly removed from where Joy Division left off, and the shadow of Curtis looms large as the defining backdrop to the album. New Order’s struggle to find its own signature sound – something that would start to fall into place on Movement’s follow-up, Power Corruption And Lies – means it isn’t too difficult to view this album as the third studio album Joy Division never made. Hell, even the vocals of Sumner and Hook tend to ape those of Curtis at times.

As such, Movement pretty much represents a snapshot of a band in transition, a mandatory step on the road to longevity, and a fairly emphatic last gasp purging of the past. It seems improbable that New Order would have morphed into the hugely influential band they eventually became without this initial small step away from what they once were. In order to embrace a bright new future, indeed, any sort of future together, it was necessary to get the grieving process over and done with first.

Movement received a belated “Deluxe” makeover of sorts in 2008 – with a bonus disc of essential material from the same period (including two versions of the fabulous 'Temptation', two of 'Ceremony', plus 'In A Lonely Place', 'Everything’s Gone Green', and 'Procession') accompanying the original album.

Best tracks on Movement: 'Dreams Never End', 'The Him' (my fave), 'Doubts Even Here', and 'Denial'.

This review originally appeared on

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Album Review: New Order – Lost Sirens (2013)

All early indications are that 2013 is quickly shaping up as The Year of the Comeback. Barely anticipated new albums from David Bowie and My Bloody Valentine have dominated music pages, blogs, twitter feeds, and just about every other form of social media, where the relative merits of each release have been endlessly debated.

There have been similarly unexpected surprises from Suede and The House of Love, along with news that Primal Scream’s first new work in five years is only a matter of days away. Throw in the fact that the Stone Roses actually played a gig in Auckland last month, and you would be forgiven if you believed you’d taken a wrong turn at New Year’s Eve to somehow end up being involuntarily transported two full decades back to 1993.

And then there’s this, New Order’s “new” album, Lost Sirens. Only this isn’t so much a comeback, as it is the release of a bunch of previously shelved cuts from the Waiting for the Sirens’ Call (2005) sessions. I’m not quite sure why, I wouldn’t have thought it a particularly lucrative cash cow for the band to release this now, and I can only suppose it’s simply all about just keeping the band’s name out there.

Still a viable going concern as a touring act, sans the now departed pivotal bassist Peter Hook, who does of course feature prodigiously on Lost Sirens, it’s perhaps a way of saying there’s life in the old dog yet. But the sad reality is that subsequent events and petty in-house issues have rendered a few of these tracks worthwhile only as keepsakes of the original band in its death throes.

Mercifully short at eight tracks across just 38 minutes, the fact is the two best tracks on Lost Sirens have been released before; ‘Hellbent’, a Dandy Warholesque rocker, had previously appeared on that suspiciously exploitative Joy Division/New Order co-compilation Total, while ‘I Told You So’ goes one better, having formerly been sighted on the actual Waiting for the Sirens’ Call album in its original form. Only this time we get a re-work.

The other six tracks are interesting enough in an anal happy-to-have-them kinda way, but non New Order fans are unlikely to be converted by any of the “new” material on offer. Considering the original Sirens is one of the least heralded or celebrated New Order releases, it’s difficult to understand why we’re now hearing work that didn’t even make the cut at the time.

"once more for the cameras lads"
But it is what it is – another batch of music to add to the ever expanding New Order file. The band hasn’t had its problems to seek in recent years, and I note things between Sumner and Hook appear to have taken yet another turn for the worse, so I don’t really want to bag New Order. I’ve got everything they’ve ever done in one form or another and the band’s five Eighties albums represent a practically flawless run. It’s just that none of this work measures up to that group in its pomp, and I’m surprised to see it out here.

Highlights: there’s some cheesy and rather weak lyrics on offer but if you can get past that then … ‘Hellbent’, ‘I’ll Stay With You’, ‘Recoil’, ‘Californian Grass’, and ‘I Told You So’.  Here's 'Hellbent' ..

Willow Beats - Alchemy

Here's a great new track from Willow Beats, who I've raved about in the past. Released last week, a taster for something more substantial on its way. A free download too ..

Get it here: Alchemy

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Lost Alternative 80s: The Fixx

Here’s ‘Red Skies', a slice of shameless pop from The Fixx, circa 1982, off the Shuttered Room album (the band’s debut) from that year. The Fixx were something of a curiosity in that unlike the vast majority of UK-based synthpop bands of the era, they were bigger in the USA than they were in their home country. The Fixx are still a going concern, and as recently as 2012 the band released studio album number ten, Beautiful Friction. The 1983 album Reach The Beach was probably the band’s most successful album commercially, but Shuttered Room was my own favourite.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gig Review: Cat Power, Wellington, 2013

I hadn’t intended to go to Cat Power at the Wellington Town Hall, but when two comp tickets landed in my lap during the week leading up to the gig, well, I was quietly pleased ... even if it meant abandoning all last gasp hope of seeing the Wedding Present perform on the same night, and the shunning of a friend’s birthday meal. And actually, a little worryingly, the two comps weren’t in the form of physical tickets, rather it was the altogether less convincing assurance that “your name (plus one) will be on the door”.

And so it was.

As it turned out, arriving fashionably late was something of a risk; we missed whatever warm-up act had played in support, and had only just purchased a couple of drinks when Chan Marshall and her band suddenly appeared on stage, launching into ‘The Greatest’ before we’d even had a chance to settle into the small-to-moderate sized crowd. The gig certainly wasn’t a sell out (and I suspect part of that was due to the Wedding Present playing across town).
‘The Greatest’ set the tone for the evening, all moody build up and atmosphere, an ebbing and flowing of Marshall’s always heartfelt vocal delivery as the band immediately warmed to its task. From there it was into ‘Cherokee’ and a journey through most of her 2012 album, Sun; ‘Ruin’, ‘3, 6, 9’ and ‘Nothin’ But Time’ being among the show’s highlights.

Yet there was no one single show-stopping highpoint in the performance, and at no time was I standing there spellbound by what was happening on stage, or in awe of what I was hearing. It all felt a little bit cold and clinical. Chan Marshall tends to get lost in her performance, or at the very least, lost in the role play of tortured artist, and there was a sense she was acting it out a little.

The band was tight – very Cure-esque, I thought, which placed Sun in a slightly different context, so I must return for another listen – but the star was Marshall herself, just as it should be, dominating the stage and squeezing every last raw emotion out of that unique voice. It is just that the gig never really peaked, and it felt like it was just another city, another venue, another night. Business as usual for Cat Power.

There was a point where Marshall attempted to cajole the crowd into an obligatory “cigarette lighter moment”, taking her own lighter out, giving it the requisite spark, only to then be confronted by blank looks and wider crowd apathy. They just weren’t feeling it like she was. Either that, or there are clearly no smokers anymore, and those pesky lighters just weren’t on hand.

And then right at the end, no warning that the (70-minute?) gig was close to coming to an end, no sign of any encore … nothing, just a blast of what appeared to be some bad taste Hip hop track at the conclusion of her set, in what was almost certainly a shameless ploy to remove us from the venue as quickly as possible. It was done.

The lack of an encore was disappointing. I had banked on her ‘New York New York’ cover being wheeled out, or perhaps one or two tracks from the back catalogue could have been given an airing, but it seems the passion just wasn’t there, and we weren’t going to get one. We weren’t even allowed to superficially go through the motions of screaming for more.

The sound at the Town Hall wasn’t the best, or even remotely close to the best it’s been in the past – it was “muddy”, just as another blogger has described it – but for some reason that didn’t bug me as much as it usually would.

I had few expectations at the outset and that was perhaps just as well. I suspect a few of the more committed Cat Power devotees may have been underwhelmed by what was delivered, but my own starting point was that I had nothing to lose, and I wound up enjoying the night. For all of the flaws, I was generally pretty happy just to live in Marshall’s performance for an hour or so, to stand alongside her, and to take it all in. I just went with it … and it worked.
Here's something we missed: