Sunday, October 29, 2017

Classic Album Review: Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist (2007)

I note there is a brand new 2017 album out by one William Patrick Corgan. It’s called Ogilala, and it’s produced by Rick Rubin … past master of the unlikely belated comeback album (see Cash, Johnny, and others).

William Patrick is, of course, better known as Billy, frontman of the once brilliant, now largely irrelevant, Smashing Pumpkins. I’m not going to review the new album, which surely amounts to little more than yet another doomed comeback attempt. I don’t really have the stomach for that. But its arrival did remind me that it’s been ten years since the release of Zeitgeist, an album I reviewed (for another site) shortly after it was released. I thought I’d share that review here, and if I’ve incorrectly classified Zeitgeist as a “classic album”, then I’ll ask you to think beyond the square, and consider it a classic example of the “classic” failed comeback album:

There was once a time when Billy Corgan was considered a tortured genius. Now many just consider him a tortured … *insert expletive of choice here*. Which is all a little bit unfortunate, because you’re nothing in popular music if you’re not erm, popular.
For the past, *insert the number of years since Corgan was last relevant*, if not actually a bit longer, Billy Corgan appears to have been intent on destroying any goodwill he’d slowly compiled over the course of the previous decade – using up his popularity credits, if you like. Making outrageous statements, distancing himself from his fanbase with bizarre antics, acting like a prize w*nk on stage, and generally trying to be a wee bit too clever for his own good. Basically pulling off one cunning stunt too many and ending up looking like an anagram of that.

Is it any wonder critics (and many fans) wrote Zeitgeist off from practically the moment it was released?
Then there’s the bit about whether or not Zeitgeist is a genuine Smashing Pumpkins album on account of two missing band members, not the least of whom was key guitarist James Iha. Allow me to clear this one up. Billy Corgan is the Smashing Pumpkins, always has been, and with regular drummer Jimmy Chamberlin back on board, we’d have to err on the side of a quorum even if you don’t accept Corgan’s presence is standalone evidence in itself.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how Corgan might have conceived this album, or to understand what he was endeavouring to achieve. The title (“zeitgeist” being the moment which captures the “spirit of its time”), its cover sleeve (iconic imagery), its arrangement and structure (complete with the long-winded ‘United States’ centrepiece), its main themes (file loosely under US foreign policy), and most of all Corgan’s massive ego (well documented) all point to the same thing – Zeitgeist, quite clearly, was supposed to be an epic, a triumphant return, a political statement, and perhaps even, gulp, a career defining moment.
Everything about it screams … “take me seriously!” … alas, it tries just a little too hard, and merely succeeds in coming across as too desperate in the end. Billy also forgot the bit about consistency, quality control, and filler. Not only in terms of the music itself; Zeitgeist also falls a long way short of Corgan’s previous standards when it comes to lyrical content.
But, I have to say, even though I do have to keep reminding myself of this, it isn’t all bad.
The opener ‘Doomsday Clock’, and the single ‘Tarantula’ are decent enough. ‘Tarantula’ actually hints at a return to top form, and each track would probably hold its own on any previous Pumpkins album.
The aforementioned ‘United States’ is not without its moments either – with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drumming very much to the fore. ‘United States’ demands a bit of listening and effort, but ultimately it proves a worthwhile exercise.
Sadly, those successes are undermined by Corgan’s worst excesses and indulgences. ‘Starz’ is just plain awful. ‘For God And Country’ is a promising tune ruined by lazy songwriting and dreadful Eighties production, and not for the first time on the album we get a pretty ugly Brian May-esque guitar sound on the closer ‘Pomp And Circumstance’. In fact, it is almost fitting when the album finishes with the sort of solo that would have even Queen fans cringing.
That’s the best and the worst of it, the remainder of the tracks are just ordinary. No more, no less.
Ditto the bland production. No attempts are made to enhance, disguise, or vary Corgan’s whiney nasally voice, with diversity being a key element to the vocals and a past feature on the band’s best output. As for the trademark guitar sound (post-Iha) … well, at times the earnest riffing feels fat and bloated, at other times it's just plain tinny.
The rhythm section – if it can be called that – deserves credit for relentlessly driving each song to conclusion, but again, at times the bass sounds muddy, and despite Chamberlin’s occasional heroics, the lightweight production hardly helps matters. 
Overall, a big disappointment, yes, but perhaps not the career-ending disaster some would have you believe. There are glimpses of promise on Zeitgeist, and if Corgan can channel some of the criticism in a positive way, as opposed to taking it as badly and as personally as he usually does, then he, and the Smashing Pumpkins (sic), are capable of bouncing back.
In the meantime, this one is for a particularly hardy breed of fan only.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lost In (Bird) Soul

It’s a fairly frequent Pitch Black party trick; fusing together tunes from different albums to produce something dynamic and new in a live setting. The local dub merchants were at it again at this year’s Ozora Festival in Hungary, producing ‘Lost In (Bird) Soul’, by blending ‘Lost In Translation’ (from Ape To Angel, 2004) with ‘Bird Soul’ (from Rude Mechanicals, 2007). The end result is something unique yet naggingly familiar, and they’ve released the 13-minute epic as a name-your-price download on Bandcamp. Treat yourself.

By the way, this is a milestone everythingsgonegreen blogpost, number 500, so it seems appropriate that it combines three of my all-time favourite things – some electro-dubby shit, something from Nu Zild, albeit via a circuitous route, and something downloadable. Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Album Review: The National - Sleep Well Beast (2017)

I have to admit, I feared the worst. There had been a couple of fairly recent unsettling developments. Signs or little hints that we'd already seen and heard the best of The National. That, as a band, they were yesterday's men, condemned to merely go through the motions until they collectively reached the inevitable bitter end. On account of having nothing better to do. Or at least, having nothing better to offer us.

The band's previous full-length release, the (in retrospect) mostly watercolour Trouble Will Find Me (2013), was enjoyable enough at first, but it grew stale relatively quickly, and it seldom warrants a mention whenever The National’s very best work is being discussed. That album was followed by a couple of rather ordinary hit-and-miss standalone releases, and when I saw the band's name included as a headliner on this summer's (local) winery circuit, well, that would usually amount to something akin to the kiss of death. The sort of gig a band struggling to retain any degree of relevance might take. And, gasp, the sort of gig frequented by nostalgia act devotees only.

But I need not have been too concerned. As it turns out, Sleep Well Beast was/is a lovely surprise, and it presents The National right back at the top of its game, with the album showcasing all of the constituent parts that formed a truly magnificent whole on the band's previous high watermark releases – on key albums like The Boxer (2007), and High Violet (2010). Obviously, we'll have to see how it ages before we'll know where it will ultimately sit within the wider pantheon of the band's near two-decade long career, but a few months on since its release, the seventh National album feels like a genuine keeper.

I know nothing of lyricist and vocalist Matt Berninger’s past or current relationship status, but it’s not difficult to conclude that someone, somewhere along the way, has broken his heart, quite badly, and much of Sleep Well Beast – interludes of barely disguised political commentary aside – deals with heartbreak and an implied acceptance that love never ends well. And given that love can only ever end in break-up, or death, then that last part is hard to argue with.

There’s an intimacy and an understated beauty about the arrangement and production, and a sense of melodrama lurks beneath, or within, almost every track. A certain tension that the unfiltered fragility of Berninger’s seductive baritone frequently brings right to the front and centre.

With a set of a dozen high calibre songs, strong melodies, and music that is rich in depth, texture, and variety, Sleep Well Beast offers up a far wider stylistic palette than we found on Trouble Will Find Me. From gentle keys-based tunes (‘Born To Beg’, ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’) to full-blown psychedelia (‘Turtleneck’), and a little bit of most things in between.

In simple terms, as returns to form go, this effort has to be considered one of 2017’s best statements of intent. It would seem any thoughts of the band’s impending demise are premature, to say the least, and clearly The National aren’t quite ready to join the greybeards of the nostalgia circuit quite just yet.

Album highlights include the first couple of singles, ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’, which has grown steadily in stature since its initial low-key unveiling months ago, and ‘Guilty Party’ (clip below), which works as a gentle tearjerker, a heartfelt break-up post-mortem. Plus, ‘Carin At The Liquor Store’, ‘Day I Die’, and ‘I'll Still Destroy You’.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Magazines of my time Part 5: The 1990s and beyond ... M8, Select, and Mojo

This is the fifth and final instalment in the series of blogposts on magazines. I’ve looked at the 1970s (here), the 1980s (here and here), and tried to provide some personal context around those days. In this part I’ll take a look at the 1990s and beyond, fast-forwarding to a virtually magazine-free present day …

The early 1990s was a period of huge transition and upheaval for me. Between 1990 and the (NZ) summer of 1992/1993, when I left New Zealand to move to Scotland, I lived in a total of seven different flats or houses, some shared, and some solo – moving from Hataitai at the start of 1990, to Aro Valley, to Seatoun, back to Aro Valley, to Mt Victoria (two separate abodes - Majoribanks St and Duke St), and finally to an inner city Dixon St locale for a few months before making what would ultimately turn out to be the life-changing move overseas. During that same period, I changed job at least three times, had some um, serious “interaction” with local law enforcement, and lost quite a lot of money on a failed nightclub-related venture. It’s fair to say I was very unsettled, and the move to Scotland – on a one way ticket – couldn’t happen soon enough. I can still recall Mum’s words on the eve of my departure … “you can’t run away from yourself” …

Part of the process of getting the airfare together, plus the tiny amount of cash I had pocketed for my arrival (from memory, about $400 NZD), involved selling a lot of the personal items I’d been collecting in prior years – most of my music collection (*wipes tear*) and a relatively large collection of magazines. I got very little cash for that stuff, but I had nowhere to store it all, and every dollar mattered at that stage. I kept some of the more precious items, but most of it went to a second-hand shop on Wellington’s Cuba Street.

I had family in Scotland, in Coatbridge (“Little Ireland”), and had little choice but to allow them to “adopt” me when I first arrived, while I settled and found a job – which I did with relative ease; I was soon back working all-nighters at a large accommodation hotel in the centre of Glasgow. Within a couple of months I’d found my own bedsit accommodation right in the heart of the city – in Sauchiehall Street, which was more or less party central, and it fitted perfectly with the lifestyle I’d become accustomed to, which was essentially that of a nocturnal insomniac-come-nightclub dweller, depending on what night of the week it was. Mum was right, I hadn’t changed a thing, I’d simply relocated, and I’d spend the best part of the next two years following that dark – and rather unhealthy – path.

I think during the five years or so before the internet arrived in earnest, let’s say 1990 through to 1995, the magazine market must have hit some kind of peak, and in the UK there were publications for practically anything and everything. I can recall being super impressed that most of the music magazines on offer came with freebies – usually a cassette tape or a CD, but occasionally a book – and the sheer variety available was mind-boggling. I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store, and with few friends (at that point), I had all the time in the world to read as much as I wanted.
That said, aside from the Celtic View, the compulsory must-have weekly magazine covering all things Celtic FC, there wasn’t one single publication I felt more inclined to collect over any of the others. I was a regular reader of The List, which was Scotland’s equivalent of Time Out, the NME, Q, Select, Vox, and M8 magazine. The latter specialised in covering nightlife in Scotland – dance music, reviews, club events, and an especially vibrant “rave” scene. It was one of my favourites, along with Select, which was a mainstream music glossy that frequently came with high quality cassette tapes.

M8 became an essential tool in helping me plan my weekends. It was named after the stretch of motorway that runs between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but focused on nightlife happenings right across Scotland (and beyond). Having been established in 1988 by David Faulds, who was also active as a dance music promoter, the magazine was in its prime by the early-to-mid 1990s, a period surely now regarded as something of a golden era for the dance music/rave scene in Scotland. It seemed as though every weekend there was something relatively huge happening, even outside of the main centres, at venues like the Fubar in Stirling, the Metro in Saltcoats, or the ill-fated and controversial Hanger 13 in Ayr, which was forced to close in 1995 after several drug-related deaths.

Massive dance parties in small towns frequented by multiple bus-loads of bug-eyed out-of-towners. It helped that Scotland had its very own live rave act of the era, The Time Frequency (or TTF), who often headlined such events. In these (current) times of a much more highly regulated dance music scene, it’s almost impossible to imagine now just how loose things once were.

My own ability (and willingness) to travel beyond Glasgow was often compromised however, mainly by a lack of funds, and I tended to stick to inner city clubs within staggering distance of my abode – clubs like the Tunnel, the Arches, or the retro-flavoured Fury Murrys, which was as unhip and underground as these places get, and very much a guilty secret … and yes, ‘80s retro/new wave nights were already a thing as early as 1994.

In its infancy, M8 magazine had a fanzine-like quality, but it eventually became a journalistic stepping stone, with the likes of early-period editor Mickey McGonagle becoming established at the Daily Record (is that a step forward?), and late-90s editor Lesley Wright going on to land the top gig at the renowned DJ magazine. In later years it became far more global in scope and reach, very active in event promotions, and these days operates online as Tillate.
Select was a far less niche publication, and it had a widescreen, if a little UK-centric, approach to pop culture. For me it was the most viable alternative to the likes of Rolling Stone or Q, each of which lacked any real appeal for reasons many, varied, and too long-winded to go into here. Select had all I really needed beyond the realm of dance music coverage – the occasional compelling feature, gig and album reviews, and most importantly for someone seeking to rebuild a music collection on a limited budget – sampler cassette tapes (and later, CDs) ... at least nine tapes between 1990 and 1996, and at least six CD releases thereafter, through to the magazine’s demise in early 2001.

Select became most famous, perhaps, for its detailed and almost obsessive coverage of the rise and fall of Britpop. It seems no coincidence that the magazine’s own popularity mirrored the career trajectories enjoyed by the likes of Oasis and Blur (among others), and it’s notable that one of its mid-period editors, John Harris, went on to become a leading Britpop authority, and author of ‘The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock’ (2003). Other leading or high-profile contributors to the magazine during its decade-long existence include award-winning Guardian writer Alexis Petridis (the mag’s final editor), and Blur biographer, Stuart Maconie.  

I still have several of those Select tapes, and maybe even a CD or two, but I stopped buying Select with any regularity around 1996-ish, not long after returning to New Zealand, because its content fell away rather badly, quite quickly. Perhaps it was just me, perhaps I just grew out of it, because one day I decided the (then) latest issue was all a bit too tabloid-esque and it no longer offered enough serious commentary. I’d more or less moved on.

In fact, the whole world was moving on. Within a year of moving back to New Zealand – newly married with a whole new set of adult responsibilities (see the “life-changing” reference above), which is a long story in itself, and one for another time/post – this crazy phenomenon called the Worldwide Web – aka the internet – was starting to take hold, and the slow steady demise of the print medium was already well underway.

It certainly changed my own reading habits, and magazines held significantly less appeal once I became suitably equipped with my own ever-faster connection with the outside world. I still covet the format, the physical “thing”, the feel, shape, form, and smell, of a printed magazine. Not to mention the excitement of a “free CD” … however obsolete that format itself has become. Because sometimes convenience can feel a little overrated, and logging into a website is not quite the same thing as picking up a magazine and flicking through its pages at leisure. Long live GP waiting rooms and hairdressing salons … 1985 issues of The Face? … I will hunt you down and find you.

Which brings me to what is more or less my current – and only remaining – poison of choice when it comes to printed matter of the periodical variety; the distinctly retro Mojo magazine, which has been in circulation since 1993.
I’m not a regular consumer of Mojo by any stretch but it’s something my children often buy for me on those pesky occasions when I’m forced to celebrate a birthday and it’s the only remotely affordable thing on my wish-list. I do enjoy the magazine for the historical angle it adopts, the quality of the writing, and the seemingly endless vast back catalogue of quality photos. And um, the themed CD – again, usually retro – it offers.

The fact that it has survived as long as it has – coming up for a quarter of a century – in a rapidly changing market, against all odds, says all there is to say about Mojo. 

I’ll leave it here. I’ve rambled on long enough, and I’ve dealt all of the publications that meant something to me over the course of my lifetime. Except perhaps a couple of fly-by-night gems. Which is what I set out to do, five long-winded blogposts ago.

I was a little taken aback a few weeks ago when a daughter told me she’d learned a lot about me just by reading this series of posts. Up until that point, I hadn’t realised she was even reading the blog. But it’s also fair to say I was touched by the fact that she was checking in, and that these blogposts were of some interest to her. It led to a conversation about these specific posts (on magazines) and why I felt compelled to share my thoughts on what might otherwise be considered a rather niche or frivolous thing. I explained that as much as they are a personal indulgence, they also sought to highlight, or at least document, how different life used to be.

I wanted her to fully grasp that for her generation, facts, information, and everything-you-ever-need-to-know-about-everything-and-more, is only ever a few keywords, clicks, or swipes away. Yet for my own generation, there was much less in the way of options when it came to sourcing information – we had television, radio, books, newspapers, and magazines.

That was more or less it, beyond the stuff that got handed down by default via our parents and teachers, naturally. And of course, the generation of my parents had even less choice. I think my point was that because we had to work hard at becoming informed, it somehow made that information all the more valuable. I coveted magazines because of what they offered and the amount of effort it took to collect them. I hope that makes some sense.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Home Alone/Spring

It’s been more than two years since the release of the last label compilation – Autumn, which I looked at here – but Wellington’s Home Alone Music is back, with another sampler album on the Bandcamp platform. This time it’s called Spring, and again it’s a name-your-price release.

There’s some pretty good stuff here – check out the work of Shenandoah Davis, Grawlixes, Lake South, French For Rabbits, and Secret Knives, in particular. If you like what you hear, give the artist some love, buy something, or attend their next gig …

Find Home Alone on Facebook (here).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

R.I.P. Tom Petty

Farewell to Tom Petty, who died earlier today after suffering cardiac arrest at his Los Angeles home. I wasn’t his greatest fan, and confess I possess only one solitary compilation album of his work, but as with a lot of casual Petty fans, the stuff I did like, I really loved.

In the late Eighties and Nineties, a lot of his music tended to pass me by, despite his omnipresence on FM and rock radio across the globe. I mean, I heard it all, but dismissed a lot of it on account of the overkill factor ... it was mainstream, it was everywhere, and my enjoyment of it soon reached saturation point.

But none of that was his fault, and that level of exposure merely illustrates his widespread popularity. I have close friends who swear by his music, and they're devastated by his passing.

His music certainly ticked a lot of boxes – from power-pop to “new wave” to Americana to psychedelia to hard-edged balls-out blues-based rockn’roll. And of course there was all of the rather more straightforward commercial pop music those radio executives and playlist programmers loved so much. And it's fair to say he was one of the best American lyricists of his generation.

I recall as a young fella, one morning before school, it would have to have been 1980, playing ‘Refugee’ at full blast on the family “stereo” in the lounge, when my very strict non-pop-loving disciplinarian father returned home (having previously left for work) to surprise me, discovering me in full mock rock-god pose …

“Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some. Who knows maybe you were kidnapped tied up, taken away and held for ransom. Honey, it don't make no difference to me, baby, everybody has to fight to be free …”

When, boom! ... “turn that bloody shite off, and get yourself to school” …

For some reason, the sheer naked horror of that parental smackdown moment has stayed with me, and more than anything, Tom Petty came to represent rebellion in my world. That sense of rebellion was cemented a few years later when my transport (from Palmerston North to Wellington) for his Athletic Park gig in 1986 was provided courtesy of a friend – and a fellow gig attendee – driving a car he’d just stolen. Which felt just a touch more rebellious (and stupid).

I say it was Petty’s gig, but it wasn’t. It was actually Bob Dylan’s, with Petty offering support, and whilst details are now quite hazy, I’ve always punted the line that Dylan was terrible that night and completely overshadowed by Petty. Even if I can’t really recall the precise details of the concert, that was my perception. And I don’t really doubt it, Petty was positively flying as an artist in the mid-Eighties, while Dylan’s career was at perhaps its lowest ebb ever.

‘Refugee’ has subsequently gone on to become one of the Tom Petty tunes I love most of all, along with its album-mate ‘Don’t Do Me Like That’ (those keyboards!), and the sublime ‘Mary Jane's Last Dance’ … clip below.

R.I.P. Tom Petty (1950 – 2017).