Friday, August 30, 2013

Album Review: Black City Lights - Another Life (2013)

Earlier this month Wellington’s own Black City Lights released its debut album, Another Life, on the Brooklyn-based indie label Stars & Letters Records. Ironically enough, that’s Brooklyn as in NYC, not the central Wellington suburb of the same name.

Black City Lights is the youthful duo of Calum Robb and Julia Catherine Parr, and Another Life is also available as a name-yer-price download on Bandcamp. You may have to be quick though, as the BCL Facebook page suggests it’s available in this form only until “the end of this week”. You can get it here:

Black City Lights - Another Life

So far as New Zealand music in 2013 is concerned, this album is one of the best I’ve heard, and when it comes to name-yer-price downloads, well, it really does represent quite exceptional value. This is dark synthpop at its finest, regardless of where it might have been conceived or made. Another Life is a great listen, full of beautifully crafted electronic gems.
 
Currently on tour in the US, having previously supported Grimes, Robb and Parr have serious talent, and the album is a follow-up to the 2012 EP Parallels, released on the same imprint. Make sure you get in quick ... but even if you miss the name-yer-price deadline, I still strongly recommend that you pick up a copy in whatever form you can.

Here’s a sampler track from the album – 'Give It Up':








Sunday, August 25, 2013

Snatch

One of the things I’ve wanted to achieve on everythingsgonegreen is to cover off some of the things that were important to me growing up. To record a few thoughts for posterity, to document things that shaped my pop culture world. In this day and age of instant communication, where every last detail of individual lives can be shared immediately right across the globe, and be recorded forever, it is easy to forget that life before the internet made everything so much more private, intimate, and regional. And the reality is that the real smalltown stuff is in danger of being lost amid the cracks. As much as it would have been nice to be able to share some of those experiences at the time, it was inconceivable, and it always felt like it was enough to just be there. It was all we knew.

And so with that in mind, I’ve written before about growing up in Palmerston North, a small university town, in New Zealand’s lower North Island. I’ve covered off local bands like Shades of Grey, and small scenes like the early Eighties clubbing scene in Palmy … and while neither of those “events” has any global significance whatsoever, it felt right to indulge in a few words about each. And hey, a blog is nothing if not a self-indulgent collection of thoughts – everythingsgonegreen is written by me, primarily for me, and if anyone else can dig it then that’s great too. One day (soon?) I’m going to suffer from Alzheimers, and who knows how useful this blog might prove to a grizzly old man.
 
Aside from those two formative pop cultural experiences prior to my move to Wellington in 1986, Palmerston North also gave us Snatch, another great – if largely unheralded – band that plied its trade around the local live circuit. Snatch, not to be confused with the New York art-punk duo of the same name and same era (and yes, upon reflection, some 30 years on, the name is rather naff), was essentially a covers band, but the four-piece did manage to get some originals down on wax when it recorded the ‘Eye Contact’ EP at Auckland’s Mandrill studios in 1982.

That five track EP was produced by studio co-owner Dave Hurley, with the help of the band’s regular live sound tech, Mike Smeaton. It features compositions from guitarist Kevin Downing (co-write credits go to Keith Newman) and the style of these originals is very much in keeping with the synthpop covers the band played live – which ranged from the straightforward pop of Tears For Fears and the Human League, to harder edged stuff like 801’s ‘Third Uncle’ (where Downing in particular always excelled).

Snatch: Kevin, Nihat, Alan, and Mike
Snatch had two significant live residencies in Palmerston North, firstly at the central city ‘Majestic’ (or the “magic stick” as it was known locally) and secondly, more famously, at the suburban ‘Cloverlea’ pub venue. The line-up that recorded ‘Eye Contact’ was Mike Miers on moog, synthesizer, piano, guitar, and vocals; Alan Currie on bass, bass synthesizer and lead vocals; Kevin Downing on guitars and synthesizer; and Don Stevenson on drums. Stevenson would leave shortly after the recording – to form Shades of Grey – and he would be replaced by Nihat Orerel to create what will surely be recalled as the band’s definitive line-up.
 
I often wonder what would have happened with Snatch if they’d toured more widely. As it was, ‘Eye Contact’ sold well enough in a local context but it never really had the marketing or push that a follow-up tour would have given it. These guys all had interests beyond performing music for a living; lead vocalist Currie was starting out on an Accounting career, Miers had/has his own hairdressing business (but continues to perform live today with Tom The Band), while Downing has gone on to become something of a local legend in guitar tutoring circles.

Very much for its time, of its time, here’s Snatch with ‘Eye Contact’ … so very very 1982:
 
 
video
 

 

Album Review: First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar (2012)

Being a bit of a latecomer to the joys of First Aid Kit, I picked up a copy of the band’s second album, The Lion’s Roar, pretty much on a whim. It’s a follow up to the 2010 debut, The Big Black & the Blue, and I was largely blind to what I’d find.

The first thing to note is that First Aid Kit is essentially Johanna and Klara Söderberg, two sisters hailing from Enskede, a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden. Which is quite an important detail given that their convincing take on southern country rock has all the hallmarks of having been honed in some ramshackle Midwestern prairie back block.
 
Which leads directly to the second thing; The Lion’s Roar is to all intents and purposes a country music album. And while on the surface it might come to us via one of the unlikeliest locations known to the genre, it has Americana firmly at its core. To that end, the Söderbergs call on heavyweight guns in the form of Bright Eyes pairing Conor Oberst and Nate Walcott, while seasoned Bright Eyes collaborator Mike Mogis is on hand to produce. There’s no surprise then that the album also veers towards folk, and crosses over to pop.

If there’s a third thing, it’s that I’m a little bit taken aback by just how much I’ve been enjoying this album. You can count the number of “country” albums I own on one hand. I’m just not a fan. Usually. Beyond Johnny Cash (and everyone loves Johnny right?) and one or two other artists, I’ve been completely immune to the genre’s wider charms.

Yet this variation presented by the Söderbergs and friends feels perfectly palatable, and a whole lot more besides. Tracks like the title track (and opener), and ‘Emmylou’ – an indirect homage to power couples like Johnny and June, and Gram and Emmylou – have a slightly surreal quality about them.

It’s not too difficult to get a little lost in it, awash with the album’s feelgood warmth as the tracks roll by. The Sixties-inflected psychedelia of ‘Dance To Another Tune’ is another highlight, and there’s something quite special in these heartfelt tunes, and the southern belle-aping vocal harmonies that carry them.
 
So it feels like it’s rather more than just another country music album. With the band’s debut having sold meaningfully only in the band’s homeland, The Lion’s Roar feels like a genuine breakout release for First Aid Kit. Released in early 2012 (told you I was a latecomer), this one upped the ante, topping the Swedish charts, going top 40 in the UK, and peaking at number four on the US Billboard Folk chart. The band is now firmly on the map, transported from a niche regional scene into the wider expanse of global exposure, and it will be interesting to see where the Söderberg sisters take things from here.
 
Here's 'Emmylou':
 
 
 

 

 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Classic Album Review: Peter Tosh – Equal Rights (1977)

Like his friend and fellow Wailers collaborator Bob Marley, Peter Tosh was fated to depart this earth long before he was supposed to, shot dead in his own home, in execution fashion, when an attempted robbery went tragically wrong back in 1987. But unlike Marley, Tosh has not been bestowed the acclaim or posthumous legendary status his wider body of work would suggest he deserves.

Having split from Bob and the Wailers in 1974, Tosh released his debut solo album Legalize It in 1976, with the title track going on to become something of a staunch pro-weed anthem for every subsequent generation of smoker. Such was its universal appeal, Legalize It consequently became the album most often associated with Peter Tosh, and while it is pretty darn good, it isn’t (in my opinion) his best solo work … step forward, Equal Rights, Tosh’s 1977 follow-up.

There are two immediately identifiable characteristics to be found in Tosh’s music – the first being that powerful and compelling baritone. Always forceful and utterly persuasive, Tosh’s vocal leaves the listener in no doubt he actually believes every word he sings.

The second key element is the lyrics; anti-establishment, militant, political, with a strong spiritual undercurrent never too far from the surface, Tosh pretty much always dealt issues close to his heart. Important stuff like Rastafari, equality, race, unity, and um, weed. Equal Rights is chock full of these themes.

But even if it wasn’t, and Tosh had decided to sing about other issues, perhaps if he’d offered us an occasional lovers track – something that Bob Marley doubtlessly identified as being pivotal to his own commercial success – none of it would have detracted from the quality of the sounds underpinning the lyrics on Equal Rights.
 
That’s due, in the main, to a supporting cast of musicians that reads like a Who’s Who of Seventies Jamaican reggae – not least the likes of Sly Dunbar (drums), Robbie Shakespeare (bass), and fellow onetime Wailers, Bunny Wailer (backing vocals), Carlton Barrett (drums) and Al Anderson (guitar). A virtual roots reggae supergroup. Production comes from Tosh himself.

A 2011 deluxe, or “legacy” edition, included seven additional tracks, plus a second disc of various dubplate and dub versions. A stone cold roots classic.

Highlights: ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, ‘Downpressor Man’, ‘Stepping Razor’, ‘Equal Rights’, ‘Apartheid’.
 
Here's the title track:


Sunday, August 4, 2013

Album Review: Primal Scream – More Light (2013)

Primal Scream will forever be associated with Screamadelica, the band’s genre-bending classic, made just three albums into a fledging career back in 1991. That career game-changer has ensured every subsequent release by the band has, to one extent or another, been judged by that lofty peak. Only occasionally has the band come close to living up to such a high level of critical expectation, most notably on 2000’s XTRMNTR. That was more than a dozen years ago now, and although 2002’s Evil Heat had its moments, the back-to-basics approach of 2006’s Riot City Blues and the electro pop of 2008’s Beautiful Future didn’t fare so well in critical terms. I don’t believe either of the two most recent efforts were poor albums, it’s just that neither one was a patch on the acid-electronica opus that was Screamadelica. And therein lies the problem; successive “failures” for Primal Scream has largely resulted in the loss of any ongoing critical relevance the Scottish band once enjoyed.

But this is nothing new for Primal Scream; indeed, the band’s immediate follow-up to Screamadelica, Give Out But Don’t Give Up, met with a similar reaction. That album, from 1994, rates as one of the best Rolling Stones albums not made by the Rolling Stones, yet the response it received was one of widespread ambivalence. Despite it working as an unheralded precursor to Britpop, a throwback to another era, a dirty Stonesy variation on the more commercially embraced Oasis-Beatles thing happening elsewhere … (well, not exactly elsewhere, the Scream did after all share the same label as Oasis – Creation Records). But what on earth did Primal Scream think it was doing? … was Bobby Gillespie on some kind of demented Jagger trip? … and why was the band messing with a formula that had served so well?
 
The answer of course is that Primal Scream has always valued reinvention as the single most important part of the game. It’s been a continual theme across the band’s 30-year career and it preceded even Screamadelica. From “C86 indie” originals to acid house, from a dub/rock crossover to aggressive political rock, from hard edged electro to earthy blues, all the way through to Beautiful Future in 2008, which is the closest the post-Screamadelica band has come to making an album of straightforward pop. On More Light, the band’s tenth studio effort released earlier this year, we get what amounts to a hybrid taster of just about every genre the band has touched upon previously. And it seems to work.

I’ve got the Japanese deluxe edition of More Light ... which means the standard 13-track album, plus a couple of extras on one disc, and a six-track additional disc containing material that otherwise probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day … 21 tracks all up, and a huge amount of variety on offer.

I have to say though, that as the years have rolled on, I’ve started to find Gillespie’s vocal a little annoying. What once resonated brightly has now started to induce bouts of cringing. What worked when he was in his twenties/early thirties (a faux-American hippy drippy accent) doesn’t quite have the same sense of authenticity now that he’s the wrong side of 50. That has become something of a minor hurdle for me to overcome when listening to More Light.
 
Having said that, I’ll always prefer his American-drawl-out-of-Govan twang to the nasal whine of one Liam Gallagher.

It turns out most of the band remains intact, sans Mani, who’s returned to the bosom of the Stone Roses, for now. Lyrically it’s prototype Primal Scream, politics is a recurrent theme, naturally, and references – direct or otherwise – to Maggie Thatcher are right across the album, not least on tense opener ‘2013’. That track gets a great Andrew Weatherall remix on the “bonus” disc, one of the best reworks I’ve heard all year, and generally the second disc adds value.

The closer, and first single, ‘It’s Alright, It’s Ok’, is like every other Scream mid-tempo-jam I’ve ever heard before, and it’s familiarity is strangely comforting. If I think I’ve heard it before, it’s because I have, a hazy, intoxicating flurry of so many Scream touchstones in a five-minute sitting. ‘Movin’ On Up’ being its most immediate point of reference.  

But in between there’s great stuff like ‘Culturecide’, which wouldn’t be out of place on XTRMNTR, the vaguely psychedelic ‘River of Pain’, the both early-period and Riot City aping rocker ‘Invisible City’, and the slow burning creeper of the set, ‘Elimination Blues’, which features the understated vocal delights of Robert Plant.
 
Kevin Shields’ woozy guitar tones are all over More Light, as is the signature production of David Holmes. Brendan Lynch adds his mixing skills, but putting aside any big gun support, the album works mostly because Primal Scream sound relaxed. As tight as they can be, as a unit, thirty years on. A band with a certain self assurance, one that’s seen it all before.

On More Light, you sense the band knows it has nothing left to prove, and there’s no real attempt to prove anything. With no apparent desire or need for reinvention this time, Primal Scream revisit Primal Scream, and snippets of its own history provide the basis for the creation of something new. Yet something still very familiar, cobbled together out of remnants of the past.

Primal Scream may no longer be as relevant as they once were, and there’s always a risk that Old Father Time can turn a band into a sad parody of its former self, but in this instance it feels like Gillespie and co have stayed on just the right side of the thin line, and More Light appeals as probably the best Primal Scream album in more than a decade.

Here’s Elimination Blues: