Thursday, September 28, 2017

Classic Album Review: Depeche Mode - A Broken Frame (1982)

Digging out a review written yonks ago and published elsewhere, to take a look back at an album enjoying its 35th birthday this week:

Depeche Mode’s A Broken Frame is on the whole an excellent album, and wonderful for me on a personal level for the memories it evokes, but it is probably fair to say that non-converts will find it flawed in terms of its overall consistency.

Often overshadowed by the band’s debut, Speak & Spell, the follow-up nonetheless opens strongly enough with six of Depeche Mode’s finest, including two of their very best early singles - ‘Leave In Silence’ and ‘See You’ … but by track seven, the saccharine ‘The Meaning Of Love’, and track eight, the rather awful ‘A Photograph Of You’, the dated nature of the band’s early Eighties synth-pop sound starts to wear a little thin.

This was Depeche Mode’s first release without the band’s original driving force Vince Clarke (he of Yazoo, Assembly, and Erasure infamy) so we can probably put any gripes we have about uneven content down to the fact that this was a fledgling band enduring its first transitional period.

When they’re good though, they’re very very good - especially so during a strong mid-career period (see 1990’s Violator) - and there are a couple of real gems outwith the singles on here:

‘Satellite’ is a lovely slice of synth-induced skank, electronic ina Reggae-stylee, and the instrumental ‘Nothing To Fear’ is a personal highlight for the events it recalls from my youth - none of which can be repeated on a family-friendly blog. ‘My Secret Garden’ is also a favourite - but I’m not quite sure whether it is unrepentantly brilliant or ridiculously fey. Probably both. Ditto the closer, ‘The Sun & The Rainfall’.

Not bad. Not bad at all, in fact. Perhaps best summed up as a slightly flawed formative pop classic.

Here's 'Nothing To Fear' ...


Monday, September 25, 2017

Album Review: Cigarettes After Sex - Cigarettes After Sex (2017)

The truth is, a grizzly middle-aged man of my disposition really has no business digging the music of Cigarettes After Sex quite as much as I do. A fact more or less confirmed when it was announced earlier this week that the band’s one-off New Zealand show at the Powerstation in Auckland in January of 2018 is going to be an “all ages” affair*.

(* postscript: the first press release announcing the gig indicated it was an "all ages" show but a later listing confirmed it as R18. Which makes more sense, for the Powerstation. The band has also been confirmed for the Rhythm & Alps festival near Wanaka at the New Year.)

On the other hand, as a fellow similarly-aged less grizzly friend recently tried to reassure me, “it’s all just pop music, you're allowed to like it, so don't over analyse it" ... which is a school of thought I can also buy into.

That said, it’s unlikely to be him that I’m standing next to at the aforementioned gig, surrounded by hundreds of spotty pre and post-pubescent teenagers intent on singing every last emotionally-charged lyric in the band’s melodrama-drenched repertoire.

But to hell with it, I love the band’s music all the same, and this year’s self-titled debut album has become a stick-on certainty to be one of this blog’s albums of the year … purely on the basis that it’s one of your pop-loving blogger’s most played albums of 2017. Which makes sense, right?

In fact, I’ve gone further back and picked up a copy of the El Paso four-piece’s debut EP, I, from 2012, and the breakthrough single from 2015, ‘Affection’, which includes an impressive super dark version of Reo Speedwagon’s yacht rock classic, ‘Keep On Loving You’, on the flip side.

The album itself amounts to ten dreamy tracks, clocking in at a very digestible 47 minutes. Everything about it is gentle and subdued, nothing is too hurried or boisterous, and it feels like a genuine masterclass in the art of creating ambient pop music, albeit pop with a slightly darker than usual hue. Echo and reverb effects are applied to guitars, the synths caress and pamper, the drumming/percussion reveals a lightness of touch, and the production has a very hazy, almost ethereal, quality to it.

Cigarettes After Sex ... the world's oldest teenagers

And then there’s the otherworldly, rather androgynous, vocals of Greg Gonzalez, which sit right at the forefront of everything. If the music is designed to partially melt into the background, the casual beauty of Gonzalez’s voice begs for the listener’s full engagement. Which is both a blessing and a curse, because where the melodies are strong and immaculately crafted, the songwriting itself proves less reliable in places.

There are a couple of quite cringeworthy moments, best forgotten about, interspersed with flashes of pure brilliance. I’m still undecided about the “your lips, my lips, apocalypse” wordplay in ‘Apocalypse’ … it’s either terribly inspired, or just plain terrible, depending on where I am, and who I’m with, when I’m listening to the tune.

There are other junctures too, where the naïve 15-year-old boy inside of me grins from ear to ear, while the cynical old man of the present day feels slightly creeped out, and shakes his head dismissively. On a couple of occasions, it’s a mixture of both reactions simultaneously – see the “patron saint of sucking cock” reference in the closer, ‘Young and Dumb’ … anyway, that might just be me, and it’s probably not worth dwelling on too much. Or as another bright spark once said, “don’t over analyse it” …

The three singles, ‘K’, ‘Apocalypse’, and ‘Each Time You Fall in Love’ are all highlights, but ‘John Wayne’ also pulls me in close when it has absolutely no right to, and more generally – save the odd moment – there’s not a bad track on a thoroughly absorbing full-length debut.

Although the album – released on the Partisan label back in June – has made little impact in the band’s home country, it reached number two on the UK Independent album charts, and peaked at number three on the New Zealand “heatseeker” album chart, presumably on the back of simmering ongoing YouTube/online exposure.

Here’s ‘Apocalypse’ …


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Album Reviews: Celt Islam - Sufi Dub (2017) / I Am Electronic (2017)

Celt Islam is an extraordinary artist. I’ve been following his work closely ever since being blown away by an album called Baghdad, which was released online back in 2012. His music fuses together a range of different genres and influences, and he’s been fairly prolific over the past decade, releasing music under a number of different guises, across multiple platforms, not the least of which is his own Earth City Recordz label. During the same period, he’s also managed to establish a reputation as a compelling live/soundsystem act at Festivals and shows across the UK and Europe.

Thus far in 2017 we've had a couple of albums from Celt Islam, each one showcasing a specific strand or sub genre within the artist's wider musical repertoire. The first was a compilation album of older stuff, called Sufi Dub, which released back in February. More recently, last month, a collection of new material called I Am Electronic (or I Am Electronik, depending on where you look) surfaced on the Urban Sedated imprint. I thought I’d offer a few words on each release …

Sufi Dub
Sufi Dub is exactly as the title suggests it might be. 15 tracks of hybrid world music/dub/reggae crossover fare, full of skanky FX-laden drops and spaced-out atmospheric sticky goodness. It’s been a long time in the making, and the album showcases a quality pick and mix selection from a variety of past releases, including material from albums, EPs, and one-off releases. A sort of “best of”, if you like. Sufi Dub features a number of collaborative tracks, including a couple with like-minded regular co-conspirators such as Inder Goldfinger (on ‘Earth City Rockers’) and the Renegade Sufi (on ‘Fakir’ and ‘Mevlana’). As a fan, I’m very familiar with a lot of it, and tracks such ‘Light Within Me’, ‘Lantern of the Path’, ‘Irfan’, and ‘Freedom’ have become firm favourites and wider playlist highlights on my pod. I really love this blend, almost as much as I love the Baghdad release, which is remarkable given that it’s been pooled together from a wide range of original source material. I can thoroughly recommend the hugely inclusive holistic energy of Sufi Dub as a wicked starting point if you’re looking for an introduction to the music of Celt Islam.
Go here to pick up a copy of Sufi Dub from the Earth City Recordz Bandcamp page.

I Am Electronic
The second, more recent release, I suspect, is rather more niche and will perhaps be a little less accessible in terms of the mainstream. If that’s even a consideration, because this is unrepentant hard-edged industrial-strength electro/IDM of the highest calibre, and the overwhelming sense is that these tracks have been pieced together without any regard for compromise whatsoever. If Sufi Dub is the work of a man seeking universal acceptance or appeal, which it may or may not be, because I think his musical philosophy extends far beyond such simplistic analysis, then I Am Electronic sets its stall out in an entirely different stratosphere altogether … one where the listener is confronted by a much more frightening vision of the planet we live on. And just quietly, it probably presents a far more accurate assessment of where the world is at in 2017. Seldom can music without any form of what might be called “orthodox vocals” or lyrics, portray so much. On one hand, this work is reminiscent of a superb album called Worlds We Know, which was released by Celt Islam under the guise of The Analogue Fakir a few years back, in that it combines traditional (world music) instrumentation with much newer technologies, yet on the other hand, I Am Electronic takes things to a whole new level entirely. I’m not keen to single out favourite tracks, but if pushed, highlights here include ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘Electro Dervish’.
Go here to pick up a copy of I Am Electronic from the Urban Sedated Bandcamp page.

Here’s ‘Lantern of the Path’ from Sufi Dub:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Album Review: Lord Echo - Harmonies (2017)

Following on from Melodies and Curiosities, Harmonies is the third album in a Lord Echo trilogy which spans more than a decade for ex-Black Seed multi-instrumentalist and producer, Michael August, aka Mike Fabulous. And while it would probably be technically correct to call the 10-track release a “solo” work, Harmonies is all about collaboration, with the album being all the richer for the key contributions made by Electric Wire Hustle’s Mara TK (vocals), Fat Freddy’s horn man Toby Laing, with Lucien Johnson on sax, and cameo appearances from Leila Adu and Lisa Tomlins. Which is something close to a mini “Who’s Who” of the local funk scene, and all have featured on previous Lord Echo releases. Naturally enough, the whole thing oozes warm vibes, as a hybrid disco-meets-reggae-meets-afro soul concoction of knee-buckling sweetness, with all manner of instrumentation on hand to keep things fresh and always interesting. Recorded and produced at August’s Gracefield (Lower Hutt) studio, and released on the London-based Soundway label, it would be no stretch to contend that this is the best offering yet from Lord Echo. Mara TK’s vocal gymnastics on the sublime 'Just Do You' is one of the more obvious highlights, while Tomlins’ star turn on the Philly soul classic 'I Love Music' breathes new life into a much loved old banger, and it works as an ideal album closer. In addition to standard forms, the release also comes in a double vinyl edition specifically for the discerning club DJ.

(note – this review was originally intended for publication on the NZ Musician platform (magazine/website). Usually I try to give NZM a period of some exclusivity on the album reviews they ask me to write, before publishing the review on the blog at a later date. Given that on most occasions the chance to review comes courtesy of a CD sent via the post, it feels like the right way to go about things. However, this was written and sent to the magazine for publication ten weeks ago, so I can only imagine it has somehow disappeared into the ether … hence sharing it here while it still has some degree of “new release” relevance).

Monday, September 11, 2017

Classic Album Review: Barmy Army - The English Disease (1989)

This won’t fit the common definition of what a classic album is, but given that your blogger is a fully certifiable On-U Sound nutter, what passes for “classic” at everythingsgonegreen towers, and what counts as a “classic” elsewhere, is always likely to be two (or more) different things …

The English Disease is something of a novelty item for those familiar with the bass-heavy dub sounds of the On-U Sound posse, and it features several of the artists who produce output for Adrian Sherwood’s legendary label.

The Barmy Army was effectively the loose collective otherwise known as Tackhead and friends, and here they combine a couple of their shared passions – sampling and football – to create a body work unlike anything else heard before or since. It won’t appeal to all, but it does have some curiosity value, and will be well worth a listen for anyone who has previously enjoyed Tackhead, Little Axe, Dub Syndicate, Mark Stewart, or indeed fans of experimental dub or eclectic lightweight cut-and-paste style hip hop.

When this was initially released in the immediate aftermath of the Heysel, Bradford, and Hillsborough tragedies, English football was at its lowest ebb for several generations, and the game was awash with hooliganism, also labelled the “English disease” by those oblivious to its widespread international reach. Attendances were low, safety concerns high, and the family-friendly all-seater environment we see today was still some way off in the future. The Taylor Report of the early Nineties and the influx of cash generated by the subscription television boom of the mid-late Nineties changed the face of English football forever, but that’s not to say that the “product” offered today is any superior.

What it has become, in truth, is a far more sterile and palatable “entertainment” option for the masses. Something has been lost however, and here the Barmy Army unashamedly celebrate a little of what went before, throwing into the mix a splattering of politics, terrace-style humour, and a fairly transparent love of West Ham United.

It’s hard to define the sound in an orthodox sense, but file this one away under: dub, reggae, hip hop, or that extraordinary one-off category created especially for this album: Terrace and voiceover (commentary) samples with some heavy beats holding it all together. Or something.

Those familiar with the On-U compilation series Pay It All Back, will already know of the Barmy Army’s ‘Billy Bonds MBE’, and ‘Blue Moon’ … well, here is some more material of that nature.

Best tracks: ‘Sharp As A Needle’ (tribute to King Kenny Dalglish), ‘Devo’ (Alan Devonshire), ‘Leroy’s Boots’ (Leroy Rosenior), and ‘Brian Clout’ (Brian Clough).

Apparently all crowd samples were recorded by the editor of a West Ham fanzine, but check out the additional credits for this album – it’ll help you recognise just who you’re dealing with here: Doug Wimbish (ex-Sugarhill house band, Tackhead, and various), Skip McDonald aka Little Axe (ex-Sugarhill, Tackhead, and various), Al Jourgensen (Ministry), and Jah Wobble (PIL). Among many others.

All done under the watchful and somewhat critical eye of the UK’s foremost master dub producer himself, Adrian Sherwood.

Recommended for the open-minded, plus football fans of all clubs and creeds …

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 4: The 1980s … Trouser Press, Blues & Soul, and The Face

So far I’ve looked at a childhood obsession with football magazines, including a comic, a brief flirtation with a commercial pop music glossy, and an early love of newsprint-based music papers. But I’ve only got as far as the early to mid-1980s, and my desire to actually collect magazines, rather than to simply buy them for reading purposes only, is really just starting to take hold ...

And so to my discovery of The Face, Blues & Soul, and to a lesser extent, Trouser Press.

I’ll deal with the New York-based monthly, Trouser Press, first, because it was the most short-lived, and given that less than 100 issues were ever published (between 1974 and 1984), surely the most collectable in the sense that copies would now be relatively rare, and I presume, highly sought after. Regrettably, I have no idea where my own small Trouser Press collection may have ended up.
It’ll certainly be far more collectable than the monolith it was up against in its home market, Rolling Stone (yawn), which, despite being hugely popular, was never able to adequately represent the more alternative or post-punk genres I was most keen on. Which is something that Trouser Press specialised in – all of that left-of-centre stuff that existed outside the realm of FM radio and the Billboard charts. Not by any stretch was it exclusively American, but it was definitely far more sympathetic to home-based “alt-rock” and all things “new wave”, than any other US-based publication I ever came across.
In later years, across the last couple of dozen issues (roughly), Trouser Press offered a “free” flexi-disc to supplement issues of the magazine. Acts like Altered Images, Berlin, Buggles, Japan, Joan Jett, OMD, REM, and XTC, all had flexi-discs released via the magazine. And after it wound up its magazine format, the Trouser Press brand continued as a series of “record guide” books, five in total – three under the title of the ‘New Trouser Press Record Guide’ (1985, 1989, 1991), one as ‘The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records’ (1983), with its final publication being ‘The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock’ (1997).
In early 1986, I decided it was time to move to Wellington. I’d been feeling trapped in Palmerston North for far too long … I was unhappy in my job, and I’d been on the painful end of two relationship break-ups. The capital city offered a number of new challenges and attractions, not the least of which was a comparatively vibrant nightlife. The fact is, nightclubbing had become, if not an obsession, then pretty much my main hobby in life. In so far as it was something I spent almost as much time doing as my fulltime job – which was soon to become, conveniently enough (from a “body clock” perspective), a night duty manager at a large Wellington hotel.
Naturally, with that kind of lifestyle choice, I was being exposed to (and loving) a whole raft of new and exciting music – electro, hi energy, rare groove, hip hop, and before too long, new genres like house and techno. And as anyone who knows anything at all about that scene at that time will tell you, there were two “bibles” for the discerning nightclub patron (or DJ) of the era – Blues & Soul magazine, and The Face. I started to collect both.
(As an aside, although Mixmag was established in 1983, it remained underground for much of the decade before emerging, and um, peaking, during the acid house years. The other more high profile dance music publication of recent times, DJ magazine, didn’t emerge until 1991).
Blues & Soul is basically an institution, established as far back as 1966, and still active today, 1000-plus issues later. A few years back it had a brief spell as an online-only publication before reverting back to its original print format.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Blues & Soul was compulsory reading – what key contributors John Abbey (founder), David Nathan, and Roger St. Pierre, didn’t know about disco, funk, and soul, really wasn’t worth knowing. The magazine’s list of features and interviews through the latter decade in particular reads like a Who’s Who of every genre ever heard inside a club.
Prominent contributors during 1980s included the likes of Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, and Tim Westwood, before each man would eventually go on to establish a successful career as a DJ in his own right. Tong wrote an industry gossip column under the guise of ‘The Mouth’ – a “fortnightly foray into fads, fax, fallacy, and fun”. Oakenfold contributed a regular column called ‘Wotupski’, and Westwood is credited with establishing the first ever hip hop-specific column at the magazine.
The nature of club music is that it can be very fickle, very scene-centric, and at that time there seemed to be an unwritten “freshest is best” rule. To that end, I can recall religiously trawling the magazine’s various charts on a regular basis, obsessing over what I’d heard and what I hadn’t, what I “owned”, what I could potentially get my hands on, and what I’d clearly have to wait for a long time for. For better or for worse, these things seemed important for a few years in the late 1980s. In fact, Blues & Soul had a chart for just about everything – singles and albums, for the UK and the US, the magazine’s own ‘City Slickers Hip List’, ‘Groove Control’ and other assorted club charts, and later in the decade, an RPM (raps per minute) chart.
The Face magazine was a slightly different beast in that it wasn’t really a music magazine. It was all about style – fashion, film, art, design, trends, identity, and politics. Naturally, a lot of music content aligned itself with that. From memory, its main rivals in that (relatively broad) market during the era were i-D, Blitz, and Arena magazines, but I think The Face was the quintessential 1980s style guide. Or at least it was for a certain demographic, one that I skirted around the periphery of due to my interest in clubbing, and the small fact that my partner between 1987 and 1990 was a committed fashionista studying textile design at Wellington Polytech.
Nick Logan, a former editor at the NME, who was also prominent in the establishment of Smash Hits, was the driving force behind setting up The Face in 1980. Logan was able to tap into the pool of outstanding journalists he’d worked alongside previously – most notably Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill (see part three), and the guru of them all, Jon Savage, who had worked for Sounds, Melody Maker, and the NME. Savage would later go on write ‘England’s Dreaming’ (1991), the seminal tome about the Sex Pistols and the punk era.
It wasn’t just about words though. As a glossy, published monthly, The Face was also renowned for its great photography and experimental/cutting edge design. Neville Brody was the magazine’s art director through the first half of the 1980s – he later moved to Arena – and much of the mag’s reputation was forged on the back of his ability to bring together all of the separate elements (fashion, film, music etc) into one cohesive whole. Brody is also noted for his album cover designs, and his CV includes work for Throbbing Gristle, Level 42, and Depeche Mode. In the case of the latter, the single sleeve for ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’.
I think my own interest in The Face had started to fade by the start of the 1990s, but not until I had amassed a fairly decent collection (again, currently awol). I broke up with the aforementioned partner, who would go on to establish her own label and set up shop in Wellington’s bohemian Cuba Street before disappearing from my life completely.

Things were about to take another turn for me, and while music, nightlife, and er, magazines, remained right at the core of my being, I was about to indulge in that most Kiwi of 20-something pursuits, “the big OE”, and head back to the UK indefinitely. I didn’t really have any specific plans, but my passport was British, my ticket was one way, and my intent was to travel light …

Monday, September 4, 2017

Classic Album Review: Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus (1977)

When people think of reggae, Bob Marley is usually the first artist they think of. And with good reason – Marley and his supporting cast have been at the very forefront of the genre for the best part of 45 years, even today, more than 35 years after Marley’s premature death in 1981.

Such was the quality of The Wailers’ output throughout the Seventies, with a succession of fine albums, Marley left a mark on popular culture that can never be denied. Without having the documentary evidence to support such a claim, obviously, I reckon Bob Marley is singularly responsible for turning more people on to reggae than any other artist.

Exodus is the album many believe to be The Wailers’ finest moment (Kaya just shades it in my view, but I know that’s only a personal thing), conceived and mostly recorded in London in 1977 following an attempt on Marley’s life back in Jamaica.

In 2017, Exodus celebrates its 40th anniversary, with deluxe packages of the original coming in a variety of different formats, depending on the amount of discretionary cash you’re prepared to part with. I’m fairly certain there’s double, triple, and quadruple LP options for this year’s deluxe-fest, all including live versions and alternate mixes.

This is the Wailers in its post-Peter Tosh, post-Bunny Wailer form, but the famous I-Threes remain a crucial ingredient, and there simply isn’t a dud moment on Exodus. All of the expected political and social references points are covered and it features many of Marley’s best known tracks.

Highlights: the title track itself is often too readily overlooked but it was surely one of Marley’s peaks, from both a song-writing and performance perspective. The best of the rest include: the beautifully crafted ‘Natural Mystic’, ‘Jammin’, ‘Waiting In Vain’, ‘Three Little Birds’, and ‘One Love/People Get Ready’.

Most people will have a copy of Legend in their music collection, and that works fine as an overview, in a singles context, but Exodus is something else altogether, and for those who feel the need for a little more, this one comes highly recommended. I would also suggest you pick up a copy of Kaya (1978) while you’re at it.