Sunday, September 29, 2013

Retail Therapy 4: Avalanche Records/Love Music, Glasgow

Another regular train journey I made during my years of living in Scotland in the early Nineties was the one that took me out to the bosom of family living in Coatbridge, about half an hour east of Glasgow, in an area known as the Monklands. The not-so-picturesque Glasgow Queen Street to Coatbridge Sunnyside, return, was made at least every couple of weeks.

On the fringes of Queen Street station, in Dundas Street, was a shop called Avalanche Records, perhaps THE prototype indie record store, a genuine throwback to a bygone era, and very much a serious distraction for me on those occasions I wasn’t running for the train. It isn’t called Avalanche Records these days. It’s called Love Music, but at last sighting the shop was very much alive, and it remains in that very convenient location.

I’m not sure if it is still owned and operated by a guy called Sandy McLean, but when I was there most recently in 2008 – or it may actually have been as recently as 2011 – it was like walking back in time. But in a good way. And it wasn’t only a sense of nostalgia driven by my relationship with the shop 15 years earlier, or the vague whiff of familiarity, it was the sense that the shop had successfully retained its soul, its independence, and a most charming point of difference from the chains and superstores surrounding it.

Back in the mid Nineties that meant Tower Records, HMV, and Virgin. All had megastores within shouting distance of Avalanche Records, but none offered the warmth and quiet passion offered by the comparatively tiny side street shop. Selling used and new, vinyl, tapes, CDs, everything was sorted into some semblance of order, yet there remained a prevailing sense of chaos – something which becomes unavoidable when at any moment a used copy of a long deleted title can jump right out at you and greet you like its long lost owner ... or owner to be.

The walls of Avalanche weren’t about being bombarded with the latest major label favourite either. Rather it was more about the retro, the obscure, the low budget, and the unique. And when I finished scouring the racks and bins for that rarely sighted old soul 45, I could flick through magazines, pick up a fanzine, or get local gig information by perusing the multitude of flyers left laying about.


I think I probably spent more money on gap-filling CD singles, mixtape fodder, rather than anything else when I regularly shopped there back in the day. But the last time I was in the store a few years ago – I’m pretty sure it had become Love Music by this time – I came across a used (but mint) Lee Scratch Perry CD that I’d never seen before, and an album often omitted from many of his “official” discographies: ‘The Essential Lee Scratch Perry’ on Mastercuts, a series more renowned for its retro dance music collections and various artist titles.

I’m not so sure that CD – picked up for a mere £3.99 – correctly identifies the truly essential Perry but it does at least showcase some of his best work from the Seventies. It remains my most recent purchase at the shop, and it felt quietly satisfying and no less fitting to find it there.

Here’s a clip from the album:


 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Album Review: Editors – The Weight of Your Love (2013)

We’ve seen it so many times before. An up and coming young “indie” band starts to outgrow its modest roots, it starts to sell its “product” in quantities it previously could only have ever dreamed about, and it starts getting invites to all the big festivals. Where does it go from here? And how does it avoid those pesky allegations of having “sold out”?

Welcome to a dilemma currently being faced by Birmingham (UK) band Editors, one that has been faced by countless other bands that reach the same career crossroads – the most notable recent high profile example being a band such as The Killers, a band not all that dissimilar to Editors in style. It is a crossroads that many bands – or any half decent band with wider aspirations – reach around album number three, or in the case of Editors, we’re up to studio album number four.
 
Mainstream popularity, or what might otherwise be called crossover success, usually comes with a hidden cost; the permanent loss of many of those who supported the band during its earliest days – all of the hipsters too cool to like a band once it achieves a certain level of mainstream success. And usually it comes with an accusation ... “oh they used to be good, I used to like them, but then they sold out”.

Ah well, even after a band has lost a section of its original core support, there’s the small matter of all that cash rolling in by way of consolation ... and it seems rather more than mere coincidence that the more sales Editors achieve, the harsher the critical reception it faces. So far, for the band’s latest, The Weight of Your Love, that reception has been a mixed bag.


Main-staging: Editors at Reading
One of the things to immediately strike me upon first listen to The Weight of Your Love was just how stadium ready it was. These guys are not only ready for all of the big festivals, they’re desperate to headline. The album is packed full of potential live anthems, and the band’s music no longer feels restrained, intimate, or even modest. In fact, the sound is big, bloated, and actually, just quietly, more than a little pompous and full of itself.
 
Don’t get me wrong, there’s some lovely music on the album, particularly the stuff that references Editors of old, that post-Bunnymen, not-quite-Joy Division stuff. But the majority of material just doesn’t gel with me. It all feels a little bit forced, a little too earnest and eager to please. Big on chorus and orchestration, nothing like the more stripped back darker music that first attracted me to the band. It’s better than some of the cack spewed forth in recent years by contemporaries such as Interpol and, um, The Killers, but it’s generally not all that appealing either.

That The Weight of Your Love contains an unusual (for Editors) proliferation of songs dedicated to matters of the heart suggests the band ultimately decided to try to appeal a wider mass, rather than a select fussy few. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to top the bill and make the sort of music that festival goers love, so long as you realise that not everyone is going to thank you for it.

Highlights: ‘A Ton of Love’, ‘Formaldehyde’, and what is the clear stand-out for me, ‘The Phone Book’ (see clip).



 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Retail Therapy 3: Fopp Records, Glasgow and Edinburgh

The ‘OE’ has become almost a rite of passage for anyone growing up in New Zealand. I’m not sure if that is simply because of the sense of isolation we feel from the rest of the world, being an island nation “off the coast of Australia”, or whether it relates to some kind of lower curiosity threshold, but an “overseas experience” is often considered something akin to an auxiliary university degree. So we all leave, have a look at what the rest of the world has to offer, and some of us return.


Fopp, Cockburn Street, Edinburgh
Thanks to a couple of barely anticipated long-term relationships, my OE came quite a bit later than I’d originally intended, and I was in my late 20s by the time I arrived in the UK, specifically Glasgow, Scotland, alone and homeless, in early 1993. I quickly found a place to live in a loft floor “bedsit” right in the heart of party central, Sauchiehall Street, home to some of Glasgow’s best nightspots. That I ended up working nightshift at a large inner city hotel meant my body clock was tuned to stay up all night, quite the bonus come the weekend or those precious nights off. Apart from the love affair I developed with all things Celtic FC, it’s fair to say that music and nightlife soon dominated the very fabric of my being … hey, it was a hard life, but someone had to do it, and even today I still pay for those sins with periodic bouts of hard-out insomnia.

That lifestyle naturally led to me having plenty of daylight time to discover all of the “new” record stores at my disposal, whether that meant a brisk afternoon walk out west to the bohemian delights of Byres Road, or just a lazy stroll around some of the more centrally located shops. On more than a few occasions I found myself leaving Glasgow altogether – sleepless and wired – on a bus or train bound for Edinburgh, the monumentally gothic and unbelievably beautiful city about an hour to the east. I was the proverbial pig in hog heaven.
 
Fopp, Byres Road, Glasgow
And it happened that Edinburgh’s Old Town area was home to Fopp Records, in Cockburn Street, a short walk up from Waverley Station. This was a little bit before Fopp became a nationwide chain of more than one hundred outlets, and the sense back then was that Fopp had an MO unlike any other music shop I’d ever encountered … it not only sold music, it sold books, posters, all manner of pop culture paraphernalia, plus the odd Tee-shirt or three. I think I’m right in recalling that Fopp did this before any of the major chain stores really caught on, common practice though it is today.

Fopp (the name taken from an Ohio Players record?) started life in the early Eighties as a market stall located in the aforementioned Byres Road area of Glasgow. It grew and grew to the extent that it eventually had shops in London before the vast majority of stores were sold and rebranded, as is the cut-throat way of the retail chain.
 
I’m fairly certain that Fopp, Cockburn Street, was one of those casualties and the shop – as at 2013 – no longer exists. Edinburgh still has a Fopp in Rose Street, on the other side of the gardens that dominate the city’s main drag, plus outlets in Glasgow – indeed, there’s one in Byres Road. But the Cockburn Street shop was definitely the one to turn to back in the Nineties, a shop so worth visiting I’d often forego the option of a decent day’s sleep in order to sate my "need" to browse the bins. Racks and bins that frequently hid a long lost gem or that rare dance mix I'd only ever heard once before in a club. It was a treasure trove of retail love.
 
Its pricing also seemed much less complex by the way prices were rounded up or down – discs were £5 rather than £4.98, or £10 rather than £11.99 … psychologically it always seemed so much easier to part with cash when less numbers were involved (I have no idea whether this is an actual cunning plan within retail circles or merely an accident of chance when it comes to me).

And so this was about the time that my CD collection really started to expand. It coincided with the rise of indie music in my wider consciousness, and although dance music remained a big part of my life in terms of going out, indie and post-punk releases formed the core of my early CD collection at that point. So I’ll sign off with this clip from 1993, a noisy two minute trip of such pure velocity it puts me right back on the Glasgow Central to Edinburgh Waverley Express in an instant ... here's Elastica with 'Stutter', turn it up and breathe in the bitumen:



 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Classic Album Review: Sisters of Mercy - Floodland (1987)

Floodland was the Sisters of Mercy’s second and penultimate album, and it has to be considered one of the most essential Goth-Rock releases of all-time.

For the band itself – pretty much limited to vocalist/guitarist Andrew Eldridge and bassist Patricia Morrison by this stage – Floodland represents an almost perfect peak, sandwiched as it was between the raw, red-blooded approach of the band’s exceptional debut, First And Last And Always, and the over-cooked, metallic, bombastic nature of the final Sisters full-length effort, Vision Thing, from 1990.
 
The most striking thing about this album initially is the increased reliance on synths and electronics, something of a move away from the guitar-based dynamic of its predecessor. Though in saying that, Eldridge’s guitar playing was pivotal to achieving what has become the quintessential “Goth” sound, and it does remain a core element here; it’s merely that it isn’t anywhere near as predominant or immediately obvious as it was on First And Last And Always.

Backing vocals also play a significant part in adding to the atmospheric, almost epic, sweeping feel of Floodland; vocal support coming from the likes of the New York Choral Society (most notably on ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’) and a multitude of others (on ‘This Corrosion’). No surprise really, given that these are the two tracks that had major production input from one Jim Steinman – see Meatloaf and assorted other “big” sounding production.

While ‘This Corrosion’, ‘Dominion’, and ‘Lucretia, My Reflection’ were extracted from Floodland as singles, all peaking inside the UK Top 20 at various points during 1987 and 1988, it is the less heralded album tracks like ‘1959’, ‘Flood Part 2’, and (especially) ‘Driven Like The Snow’, that left the biggest impression on me – at the time, and again when revisited recently.
 
In 2006, as with the other Sisters of Mercy albums, Floodland enjoyed a makeover and a reissue, the updated edition containing four additional tracks; two B-sides – ‘Torch’ and ‘Colours’, the sublime full-length version of ‘Never Land’ (at around twelve minutes, as opposed to the 2.46 minute version on the original album), and the live favourite, ‘Emma’, a Hot Chocolate cover of no little repute, a track that for my money showcases Eldridge’s vocal at its most melodramatic. Awesome stuff.





Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Retail Therapy 2: The Soul Mine, Kilbirnie, Wellington

When I moved to Wellington in 1986, my first two flats were in the eastern suburb of Hataitai, with my third in the heart of Newtown. All three “homes” (and I use the word loosely) were a mere stone’s throw from the satellite suburb of Kilbirnie, which is where I discovered one of the best little record shops I’ve ever had the pleasure of stumbling into.

The Soul Mine was owned and run by a guy called Tony Murdoch, who’d moved to Wellington and established the shop in 1985, having previously run Vibes in Gisborne. Murdoch was a musician in a band called Marching Orders and his knowledge of music was (and remains) second to none.

Murdoch was clearly passionate about what he was doing at the Soul Mine. The shop had a sense of family, and of community, as much for its location as for those who worked behind the counter over the years – a close knit team that often included Murdoch’s mum, Doreen (RIP). It was a fun place to visit … you could catch up, get some tips, and hear the latest stuff. Murdoch would put something new on and spend the next five minutes shimmying and grinning from behind the counter, supremely confident that you liked his choice as much as he did; this man loved his work, and his enthusiasm was hugely infectious. It never really felt like it was only ever about the sale.
 
That ordinarily would be reason enough to visit regularly, but the key element that singled out the Soul Mine as being something out of the box – particularly for the capital’s leading DJ’s of its era – was the massive range of dance music it stocked. From mainstream stuff, to the imported Streetsounds and Upfront compilations, to more early Hip hop than you could poke a stick at – on the freshly established Def Jam and Tommy Boy labels – right across the spectrum to the more specialised DJ-geared high-bpm 12 inch imports. If it wasn’t already in stock, Murdoch would source it for you.

The Soul Mine catered for the DJ at a time when DJ culture needed some catering for, and although it may not have been part of any great master plan, Murdoch quickly became the default “go to” guy for all niche DJ needs. The shop didn’t just sell music, it acted as a rallying point for a growing subculture, taking on what could almost be described as a de-facto custodial role for the capital’s burgeoning Hip hop scene. In the late Eighties, and early Nineties in particular, the Soul Mine regularly promoted specific club gigs or one-off parties, and I think I’m right in saying the shop itself hosted a few very special gigs and DJ performances of its own … (De La Soul? … or is that just an urban myth?)

For me personally though, The Soul Mine was mostly about the dozens of funk and dance music compilations on cassette tape I bought there (lame, I know, but it was primarily for the car), mostly between 1987 and 1990; things like the early House Sound of Chicago comps, various Streetsounds Electro comps etc. I still have a few of them in a box somewhere. But one of the best purchases I ever made there came only on vinyl, and came blindly, directly after a recommendation from Murdoch one Saturday morning. It was a vinyl copy of Pay It All Back Volume 2, an On-U Sound compilation LP, on import. I loved it immediately, and it kick-started something of a love affair with anything On-U. In fact, I ended up collecting the entire Pay It All Back series – volumes 1 to 6 – over the course of the next decade.

Pressures directly related to changes in the way we consume music, the format it took, the presence of non-specialist chain stores, and I’m guessing, its suburban location, led to the shop’s closure after 21 years in 2006. I was briefly present late on at the Soul Mine closing down “party”, some twenty years after I’d first set foot in the shop, and I was blown away by some of the faces present … a virtual who’s who of the local DJ scene across the previous two decades.

I caught up with Murdoch recently and asked him to recall some of the guys who spent a lot of time in the shop during what was – remember – a time of massive change for the musical landscape; as dance music evolved, as funk morphed into house, and Hip hop exploded from a small niche scene into something resembling a massive global phenomenon … and in Wellington terms, the Soul Mine was very much at the heart of that:  

 Tony Murdoch (Soul Man in chief 1985-2006) …

 “(There was) the Lyall Bay collective - cats like King Kapisi (Bill Urale), Ian Seumanu aka DJ Raw, who currently does the Rumpshaker old skool gigs, and runs the DJ school out at Whitireia. Plus Shaun Tamou, who is now based in Oz.

The Newtown collective - cats like Kerry 'Aki' Antipas, who’s still doing it week in week out, DJ Rockit V, the Wright brothers, Douglas Swervone Wright and Andrew Kerb 1 Wright, break dancers and graffiti artists of the highest order. True upholders to this day of Hip hop’s finest traditions!

And the Island Bay boyz - Rodrigo Pantoja aka Don Luchito, now with Radio Active, and Danny Mullholland aka DJ Mikki Dee, who has regular gigs round town and overseas.

Then of course there were inner city cats like Kosmo Fa'alogo, now in Sydney promoting Hip hop parties and shows. And Tony 'DJ TP' Pene who was kinda the godfather DJ at Exchequers back in the mid Eighties, now in Colorado USA, in IT, and still mixing it up.

From the Hutt, the legendary Rhys Bell aka DJ Rhys B, big on Active's Famous Wednesday Night Jam (with Mark Cubey) and still phunking it up. DJ Laina Tiata also from the Valley and yep, still mixing it up.

Then of course the next wave featured guys like Jason 'Jaz' Ford, hip hop DJ/upholder extraordinaire. Also Cian O'Donnell, an English DJ who worked for me for a few years in the Nineties, (who was) into rare groove/soulful house/and a lot of tasty mixes. He now owns Conch Records in Auckland. We used to import huge quantities of all that stuff from the UK.

We can't forget of course the one and only Jason 'Clinton Smiley' Harding who was also there at the beginning and who traversed all the scenes and genres in his usual impeccable style. Not forgetting Matthew Poppelwell and Liam Ryan (ex Active breakfast host) who among other gigs now alternate each week at Boogie Wonderland …”

That’s a potted history of two decades worth of Wellington nightlife right there, and your humble blogger is thinking that if a Wellington equivalent of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life is ever to be penned then Murdoch himself might be a resource well worth preserving (place a heritage order on that man, quick).

It seems appropriate then to finish with a clip of something representative of the shop, it might be something I heard for the first time there, I can’t really be sure, but it seems far more fitting for Soul Mine purposes than – for all that it was the recommendation of a lifetime – something from the On-U Sound catalogue! … here’s some Hip hop then, (very) old skool styles … Eric B & Rakim, a masterclass in rhyme and flow:




 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Classic Album Review: Paul Weller - Wild Wood (1993)

Paul Weller has been many things to many people over the years; angry young mod and ace social commentator with The Jam, purveyor of retro-chic and fine soul music with the Style Council, and during a solo career that has easily outlasted each of those earlier incarnations, he’s since gone on to become one of pop’s most influential and much loved elder statesmen … as the Godfather of Britpop (aka the ‘”Modfather”) and the undisputed king of “dad rock”.

Personally, I’m not too fond of the latter label, but it’s one I’ve heard too many times to simply ignore; Weller’s Jam and Style Council audiences – a large proportion of them being teenage boys at the time (late Seventies, early Eighties) – grew up, had families of their own, and given the sheer quality of his ongoing work it is only natural that a fair few of them continued (and continue) to avidly follow Weller’s career.

Wild Wood was Weller’s second full-length solo release, and it rates as something of a marked improvement on his eponymous debut album of a year earlier, which lacked the vibrancy and consistency many of his fans had become accustomed to. Wild Wood was widely hailed as a major return to form at the time, and it’s an assertion that still holds true some 20 years after its release.


The thing I most like about Wild Wood – and I’ll put my cards on the table here and say it’s one of my top 25 albums of all-time – is how natural the whole thing feels. Although Stanley Road is often touted as Weller’s key solo work, there is the sense on this album that we’re getting the true Paul Weller, a return to his roots, with a number of brilliant and relatively timeless songs. Nothing flash, just plenty of introspective and searching lyrics, with a certain vulnerability exposed, and there’s a genuine acoustic and pastoral feel about the whole project.

If The Jam paid tribute to Small Faces, The Who, The Kinks and the like, and The Style Council presented a glossed up version of Motown and Sixties soul, then Wild Wood ventures back to the same era to give us a small taste of the original summer of love. Whisper it, but this just might be Paul Weller’s “hippy” album. It’s certainly the closest he’s ever come to being a paisley-tinged folkie.

Well, he was never a true punk anyway, that much was always apparent, so don’t buy those accusations of selling out. The late Sixties, in one way or another, informs just about everything Weller has done over the years, yet so frequently he’s all too readily associated with that whole late Seventies anti-establishment/punk thing. Weller is a wordsmith and musician first and foremost. The beauty of going solo meant he no longer had to conform to other people’s stereotypes. There were no wars or crusades to be fought, he could simply do what felt most comfortable – and I think that’s what we get on Wild Wood.

Highlights: first off, there’s no filler on Wild Wood, even the brief instrumental interludes fit snugly, but if I had to single out five tracks for the download generation: the opener ‘Can You Heal Us (Holy Man)’, the lead-off single ‘Sunflower’, the title-track itself – ‘Wild Wood’ (one of his best songs ever, no question), ‘Has My Fire Really Gone Out’, and a toss up between either ‘The Weaver’ or ‘Shadow Of The Sun’. But even at that, all of the above should be heard in the context for which they were intended – not as separate parts of a greater whole, but as contributing segments of a pretty special album by one of pop’s finest exponents … if not actually the best British songwriter of his generation (closely followed by Morrissey, Joe Strummer, and Elvis Costello).

Here's the title track:




 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Retail Therapy 1: Digging Through The Bins Of The Distant Past

So I’ve been indulging in quite a lot nostalgia recently, and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is the way I consume music and how much has changed over the past 30-odd years. How I source it, what form it takes, and when I listen to it. These days everything is accessible online to the extent that I no longer need to leave the house – or even my rather luxurious armchair here at the everythingsgonegreen mansion – to find exactly what I want, when I want it.

35 years ago, when I first started buying music regularly, such a notion would have been considered out of this world. And while it is all very convenient nowadays, the sense of adventure I used to associate with discovering and tracking down new music has largely been lost. It just isn’t the same as it used to be.

 
As I’ve touched on previously, I spent a large portion of my youth cruising what used to be known as “record shops”. A lot of hours, and a lot of record shops. You might have even called it a pastime, if I hadn’t been so professionally thorough and anally obsessive about it. Hell, you might even say it was one of the few things in life I’ve truly excelled at. Friday nights and Saturday mornings were an especially productive period for me. I loved it.

It wasn’t always about the new product or even buying it, it was the ritual, the browsing, the digging, and the compiling of a mental wish-list (of sorts). I still do it occasionally, but my options have become very limited in recent years, and even in a city as large as Wellington, you can now count the dwindling number of specialist record stores on one hand.

My central city work location means that if I want to “browse” music during lunch breaks – the after work browse is just no longer an option – to peruse actual physical product, as opposed to the online equivalent, the chain store JB HiFi is the only genuinely close-at-hand option. JB has a good range of stuff and some great bargain bin pricing, but the shop has no soul, no feelgood factor, no sense that the music is even important. It all feels a bit sterile, a jack-of-all product, post-Foodcourt option for the masses.
 

 

When I get really clever, or remotely organised, I’ll jump on a crosstown bus and head up Cuba Street to Slow Boat, or around the corner to Rough Peel … but it always feels rushed, a little fraught … so many bins, so little time. I guess it all depends on just how hungry I might be. Both of those shops have an expertise and credibility not found at any chain store and I really ought to make the effort more frequently.

There’s also Evil Genius on Adelaide Road, out in Berhampore, and as refreshing as it is to know that an independent record store is surviving out there in the suburbs – beyond those of the Mall variety – it just isn’t an option for me on any occasional, let alone regular, basis. Huge kudos to the Evil Genius guys for taking that on.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about a few of the key music shops I grew up with – relics from the distant and not so distant past – and I thought it would be fun over the next few weeks to document a few thoughts on some of the very best I’ve encountered during my prime record digging years. Specific shops, mostly in Wellington, and a couple in Scotland. Why they were important to me, the key purchases, and whether that shop was about the vinyl, the tape, or the CD. Basically a blurb on why that particular shop was special, and I’ll take a short journey across the formats as they’ve evolved.

So I thought I’d cover five key shops at the rate of one or so per week, over the next month or so; let’s call it an exercise in extremely self-indulgent virtual retail therapy.



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dub Architect Returns

A month or so ago I blogged about Dub Architect, a seriously talented producer/engineer from Washington DC, who back in 2012 had released an album of remixes simply titled Dub Volume One. Well, he’s back with another one, a compilation of sticky tracks from reggae/dub artists across the globe, all given a special Dub Architect makeover. And you guessed it, this one is titled Dub Volume Two.

Like the first one, the second volume has a genuine international flavour about it ... Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad feature again with ‘Future’, Canadian and long-time everythingsgonegreen favourite Dubmatix teams up with roots legend Luciano on ‘Seeds of Love and Life’. Plus we get tracks from the likes of The Riverside Rockers from Japan, the UK’s Destroy DC, and Costa Rica’s TALAWA.

This time the release extends to 14 tracks and it will be released digitally on 1 October 2013.
 You can pre-order here:
Dub Architect ... "This is my second dub reggae remix compilation album which is a collection of remixes I’ve done over the past year for bands from around the world. My hope is that this is a collection of remixes that will expose reggae fans to dub music in 2013 while providing them with some irie new versions of some great tunes."

If it is anywhere near as good as Volume One, this release will be a cracker. Grab a copy.

Here's a taster - Through The Roots - 'Zombies':