Monday, May 23, 2016

Classic Album Review: Easy Star All-Stars – Dub Side of The Moon (2003)

I’m usually highly sceptical about projects of this nature. Even just to take a classic album and remix or re-master it provides risk enough on its own, let alone taking one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time and reproducing it in a completely different style. And when the original recording was made by one of rock’s all-time legendary and most critically-acclaimed groups … well, you really are on a hiding to nothing.

However, as much as the dreaded (no pun) words “novelty item” are screaming out at me to be written here, I have to say that Dub Side of The Moon is seriously good stuff, and the Easy Star All-Stars deserve enormous credit for pulling this one off in the stylish manner they did.

Dub Side does exactly what it says on the box – namely, take the 1973 Pink Floyd epic Dark Side of The Moon and record it in a reggae/dub style. The Easy Star All-Stars largely remain faithful to the Pink Floyd original, making minimal alterations to the overall feel of the music, other than the obvious changes to structure. Changes that convert the prog rock of Floyd’s original into the roots reggae found on this. But even then, the spacey atmospheric nature of prog, full of echo and reverb as it is, adapts well to the reggae format, and the All-Stars strike just the right blend of styles on Dub Side. In many respects, this material only serves to confirm how remarkably similar the two genres can be.

That the album is reproduced track for track suggests the All-Stars weren’t prepared to compromise, dilute, or offer up any short cuts along the way - despite any temptation there may have been to omit a few of the more challenging tracks. On ‘Us and Them’, the All-Stars offering actually almost surpasses the quality of Pink Floyd’s version (what? Blasphemy! – Ed), and Frankie Paul’s vocal is one of the album’s most obvious highlights. ‘Brain Damage’ is another quite brilliant interpretation (see clip below), while the “Alt version” especially (one of two) of ‘Time’ adds an earthy melancholic flavour.

The Easy Star All-Stars subsequently produced a similar covers album/version of Radiohead’s late Nineties masterpiece ‘OK Computer’ - titled ‘Radiodread’ (2006) - which was equally as impressive. There’s also been ‘Dubber Side of The Moon’, where the stuff found on Dub Side gets a makeover of its own, via a selection of remixes by the good and the great of the dub world.

Dub Side of The Moon is a worthy tribute to Pink Floyd and their original album. I can scarcely believe 13 years have passed since this slice of stoner heaven was released.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Classic Album Review: Talking Heads - Stop Making Sense (1984)

It is David Byrne’s 64th birthday today. While many would argue that Byrne’s best work came when collaborating with Brian Eno, or when working in a solo guise, for me, he’ll forever be Mr Talking Heads. Here’s a look back at one of that band’s finest moments ...

Stop Making Sense is the soundtrack to the film, and “live concert” footage, of the same name, and it is essentially Talking Heads captured in their most natural habitat; a humbling, unforgiving, instinctive, “live” state. It’s an environment in which they thrive, it should be said, all rhythm and boundless energy, with David Byrne as front man extraordinaire, and an exceptionally well-oiled unit providing the groove.

I’ve never really been a huge fan of the band, after suffering a serious bout of over-exposure thanks to errant FM radio play-listing executives of a particularly mid-Eighties vintage. Not through any great fault of the band itself, then, and revisiting this material some three decades later, without the overkill-factor, has been an enlightening experience.

On Stop Making Sense there’s a lot to like. From the instantly infectious punchy opener ‘Psycho Killer’ – arguably the best example of “acoustic disco” ever – to the languid lazy Stones-drenched gospel-funk of the closer ‘Take Me To The River’, this album gives us a couple of bookends to drool over. In between, we get the best of the rest, a live “greatest hits” package of sorts; the excellent ‘Swamp’, the raw and dysfunctional groove of ‘Slippery People’, the madcap bounce and stomp of ‘Burning Down The House’, and the typically Eighties, frankly very weird, yet still oddly compelling, ‘Girlfriend Is Better’. Then there is ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (“letting the days go by”) … all prototype David Byrne freak-out … pure Heads; a five and a half minute mix of social commentary, prophetic insight, and unabashed sarcasm.

Only Talking Heads sound like this, and Stop Making Sense is a great snapshot of everything the band was about, everything it was best at, all somehow crammed into just 46 and a half minutes here.

Oh, and damn those bloody Eighties radio jocks … it seems they may well have had some taste after all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Album Review: The Leers - Are You Curious? (2016)

After a couple of EPs and a number of singles since relocating to Auckland from Mount Maunganui five years back, talented four-piece The Leers have come up with something rather special with Are You Curious?, the band’s full-length debut. From the first few bars of the psych-rock opener 'Does This Speak To You?', it’s immediately apparent that these guys mean business; it’s not really a question, it’s more a statement of intent – this is going to be big, bold, and ballsy. Exactly the sort of thing a band needs in order to make the often difficult transition from low key student radio exposure to wider-reaching crossover success. It may have taken a few years to get here, but The Leers’ debut arrives fully formed and full of swagger. A lot of that is surely down to the sumptuous production of Sven Petterson (The Checks) and the work of engineer Ben Lawson, out of the Red Bull Studios, but it’s also down to the simple fact that these are quality tunes. There’s ten of them, plus a mid-album interlude ('Escapades') and a brief finale ('Outro'), each one offering up something slightly different, with the unrepentant pop hooks found on the likes of 'Fool' and 'Easy Love' leaving the biggest impression. Vocalist Matt Bidois carries these songs well. His voice booms at times, yet he’s just as capable of subtle shifts to reveal a more fragile hue when required. The rhythm duo are tight, the guitar playing of James Kippenberger is uncompromising and frequently a stand-out, but perhaps best thing about this album is that it’s completely devoid of any filler whatsoever. On this form, The Leers could turn out to be quite big. Stadium-sized, even.
This review originally appeared in the April/May 2016 edition of NZ Musician magazine:

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Album Review: Massive Attack - Ritual Spirit EP (2016)

There’s been five full-length studio albums, five remix albums, while 2016’s Ritual Spirit is, rather symmetrically, EP number five for Massive Attack.

The group has long been considered the leading purveyor of that bastardised genre frequently referred to as “trip hop”. You could say the original Wild Bunch/Massive crew defined the sub-genre with the critically-acclaimed Blue Lines album back in 1991. According to the evidence offered on Ritual Spirit, it’s a path Massive Attack continues to traverse today, and its heady concoction of hip hop, electronica, and funk remains as innovative as ever.

Neneh Cherry, Shara Nelson, Tracey Thorn, and Horace Andy are just a few of the more high profile names to have worked with the group over the past quarter of a century, and that longstanding commitment to musical collaboration continues on Ritual Spirit.

While the core input comes from Wild Bunch originals Robert Del Naja (“3D”) and Grant Marshall (“Daddy G”), there’s a real sense of déjà vu when Tricky (aka Adrian Thaws) returns for the first time in yonks on EP closer ‘Take It There’.

Similarly, Ninja Tune veteran Roots Manuva, arguably the UK’s most consistent or reliable go-to rapper across two full decades, appears on opener ‘Dead Editors’, while relative newcomers Azekel (on the title track) and Young Fathers (on ‘Voodoo In My Blood’) round out the guest co-conspirators this time out.

The latter being a rather unique and rarely spotted thing – a Mercury Prize-winning hip hop trio from Edinburgh.

Thematically and musically, Ritual Spirit is no great departure from what we’ve come to expect – an electro/hip hop vibe which fair drips with paranoia and angst. It’s dark and dense. Creepy and bit chilling. Close and claustrophobic. Yet not to the point of becoming unlistenable or at the expense of any of its natural groove.

It’s a trippy contrast in forms and shapes, and one that might have been better reconciled with a softer vocal presence on occasion. A Shara Nelson or a Horace Andy, say. Just to remove its harshest edge. Or something else to give it the lightness of touch it perhaps otherwise lacks.

Or maybe not. That’s picky. And a bit too nostalgic. The bar’s always been set fairly high for Massive Attack, and the truth is that while Ritual Spirit might not be perfect, by 2016 standards, it stacks up pretty well.

Here’s the title track, featuring Azekel: