Sunday, January 28, 2018

Album Review: Various - Heed The Call! Whakarongo, Nga Tamariki (2017)

Growing up in New Zealand as a young child in the 1970s, my memories of local music are pretty limited, but it always felt as though the decade could be split into two clear and very distinctive halves.

In the first half of the decade I can recall television shows such as Happen Inn and New Faces, and it seemed to me that most of the music being produced here was either very saccharine, or mostly derivative of what was happening on the pop charts internationally. In fact, many of the more high profile homegrown artists - Bunny Walters, Craig Scott, Ray Woolf, Suzanne, et al - were covering or copying exactly what was happening overseas, and it was simply being repackaged for the local market by the major record companies. There were exceptions to this “rule”, naturally.
By the second half of the decade, the local pub-rock circuit had started to offer us a number of bands with fiercely original material; the likes of Dragon, Hello Sailor, Th’ Dudes, and Mi-Sex. Right at the end of the decade, the arrival of punk and new wave - see Suburban Reptiles, Spelling Mistakes, the Scavengers, plus others - ensured the game was changing for the better.

My point being … there never seemed to be a lot else beyond those categories. There was nothing in the middle. It was either the covers and crooners of the earliest vintage, or the edgy rockers of later years. And of course, there was the island that was early Split Enz. I can’t ever recall - beyond a couple of Mark Williams hits - there being much in the way of locally-produced disco, soul, or funk. Sure, that stuff was all over the charts in the mid-to-late 1970s, mostly within the “singles” realm, but not a lot of it came from these shores.

At least that was my perception, and if we didn’t see locally-produced disco and funk music charting on any regular basis, that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t being made. It just wasn’t being produced by the majors or distributed in any vast quantity. And if it wasn’t on the charts, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t being played in one or two of the more progressive nightclubs of the era. Not that I’d know, really … I was just as likely eating peanut butter sandwiches out of a plastic Partridge Family lunchbox at the time.

Which is where Heed the Call! (Whakarongo, Nga Tamariki) comes in. A brand new compilation album (released in December 2017) that showcases “17 Prime Soul, Funk and Disco Cuts” specifically from the Aotearoa of my childhood and early teenage years. Not that we called it Aotearoa back then either. It was still plain old New Zealand, mostly white, colonial, and largely rural …

It’s a terrific collection, lovingly compiled by the history-savvy Alan Perrott and John Baker, with my version being the CD (sadly, not vinyl), one that I had to order after the limited initial production run sold out in a matter of days. I don’t think anybody could have realistically anticipated the level of demand for this album. I certainly hadn’t.

One of the album’s highlights arrives right at the very start, with ‘Voodoo Lady’, a Dalvanius and The Fascinations tune that has so much fluoro disco bling oozing from it, you’ll probably need to wear a pair of dark glasses just to listen to it. Preferably a Bootsy-esque gold-framed pair.

Following on from that scene-setter, we’re introduced to Collision, with a James Brown-defying funktastic ‘You Can Dance’. Truth is though, we’re already familiar with these guys; Dalvanius having used the core of this band on the opener, under the Fascinations moniker.

After the opening double whammy, the listening experience becomes a knee-buckling trip deep into the heart of what was quite clearly a vibrant, yet mostly underground scene. A journey that doesn’t really let up until we reach the breathy closing moments of the album finale, ‘Total Man’, by er, The Totals. Which is quite possibly that band’s only release.

Other highlights include a couple of Mark Williams’ tunes, ‘Disco Lady’ and ‘House For Sale’, something relatively rare from the bold and brassy 1860 Band, ‘That's The Kind Of Love I've Got For You’, plus Herb McQuay’s ‘Night People’.

Of the more commercially established artists to feature, Prince Tui Teka provides the title track, Tina Cross offers ‘You Can Do It’, and Golden Harvest is on hand with that always familiar Kiwi yacht-rock classic ‘I Need Your Love’, which is one of the few chart-bothering tracks included. Larry Morris shows up, after a spell in the clink, with ‘Who Do We Think We're Fooling’, while Ticket, a band I’ve always more readily associated with the rock genre, feature with ‘Mr Music’.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s work here from a few artists that I know very little about; the likes of the Johnny Rocco Band, (the) Inbetweens, Sonia & Skee, and the aforementioned Totals. Where the bloody hell have I been? I knew of the wholesome and religious Pink Family, who offer ‘Don't Give Your Life Away’, but I’d never actually heard their music.

Speaking of family, blood links might well be a theme; aside from the Pinks, there’s the Yandall Sisters (Adele, Mary, and Pauline) with ‘Sweet Inspiration’, and brotherly connections within Golden Harvest (the Kaukaus) and Collision (the Morgans). And of course, whanau was at the heart of, and often involved with, just about everything Dalvanius Prime and Prince Tui Teka ever did …

Heed The Call! is a fascinating compilation, and for the most part, a great listen. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s well worth the wait. Sure there’s some material that hasn’t aged all that well, and there’s a few sizable slabs of cheddar to be consumed, plus there’s a few covers or non-originals, but it’s a disco album, pulling the bulk of its content from the decade that taste forgot … so there’s your context right there.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Porky Post ... Album Review: Scotch Bonnet Presents Puffer's Choice (2016)

Welcoming back Porky, in a guest post capacity …

Reggae and Scotland haven’t had a great deal of history together. Thankfully, the Glasgow-based Mungo’s Hi-Fi has been doing its level-best to rectify that anomaly, on its own, and through the Scotch Bonnet label.

The label is largely a vehicle for Mungo’s but has also furnished a slew of choice reggae, dancehall and dub acts. Puffer’s Choice highlights many of those releases.

Being of Scottish stock myself, and a connoisseur of sounds that have originated from Jamaica, this compilation was a natural choice to buy from an Auckland store last year. There was a touch of the pot luck about the purchase; I was only aware of some of the acts, but given the roster it was clearly going to be a stab in the dark that hit the centre of the heart.

It begins with a rather unusual cover, Kraftwerk’s potty electro hit, ‘The Model’, performed by Prince Fatty; it’s the only track that doesn’t credit a sidekick, though Hollie Cook is the one adding the feminine vocals in place of the Teutonic timbre. This radically alters the nature of the original, making it sound more human and reversing the lyrics from “she’s a model” to “I’m a model”. You have to assume it met with the mercurial Germans’ approval, as permission would have needed to be sought from the writers to change the lyrics.

Rolling back the vibes, The Hempolics’ ‘Love To Sing’ is reworked by Mungo’s Hi Fi into a dancefloor heavyweight, with multiple verses from Solo Banton, complete with an early reggae intro.

Parly B’s contribution, with the assistance of Viktorious, ‘What A Ting’, rails against ethnic cleansing, calling out hypocrites and parasites alike, with a very 80s dancehall background.

There’s some booming bass and rapid-fire lyrics on Zeb & Scotty’s joint effort with Disrupt on the excellent ‘Jah Run Tings’. The first side wraps up with a remix of ‘Dub Invasion’ by the Led Piperz. Keeping the horn sample lifted from the classic King Tubby/Niney The Observer track, ‘Dubbing With the Observer’ which pilots the original version, this remix strips down the riddim to a simpler shuffle. “I know the kind of music that you want us to play, I know the kind of words you want me say… it’s a dub invasion, don’t take it lightly,” sings Solo Banton.

So far so good.

The second half kicks off with a collaboration between veterans Sugar Minott and Daddy Freddy for the appropriately-titled ‘Raggamuffin Rock’. The boys trade verses and it comes out like a good cop/ bad cop interrogation; Minott’s lighter tones make you feel at home, lying on a comfortable sofa with a glass of Islay single malt to hand (or something a little mellower – Ed), but Freddy drags you out into the rain-soaked alley and hits you where it hurts. Strangely, it works.

‘Golden Rule’ gets together Naram behind the boards and Tenor Youthman on vocal duties. It’s a retro-infused ragga cut with a fat bass, and when Youthman sings “if you trouble trouble, trouble will trouble you,” it invokes the genius of 1970s Jamaican star Linval Thompson, who, to this writer, is up there with a certain Mr Marley.  

Mungo’s Hi Fi feature on one of the undoubted standouts, ‘Give Thanks To Jah’ with Mr Williamz spitting rhyme after rhyme on a song that fuses Smiley Culture with Alexei Sayle: “whether you drive Mitsubishi or you drive Honda, whether you drive Mercedes or you drive dem Beamer, and it don’t really matter you a bus passenger, whether you work 9 to 5 or you an entertainer, whether you a MC or selectah.”

The album winds up with Bim One’s collaboration with Macka B, ‘Don’t Stop The Sound’ which uses a thick, wobbling future roots vibe over frantic, auction-paced toasting, and the eerie ‘Dub Controller’ by OBM, which isn’t for the feint-hearted.

Puffer’s Choice is a neat compilation of great dancehall, dub, ragga, old school reggae: and there’s not a bagpipe or bodhran in earshot.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Gig Review: Cigarettes After Sex, Powerstation, Auckland, 8 January 2018

Happy 2018. It’s been a while, and things have been a bit slow around here lately. But I’ve been on holiday. I’ve been permanently drunk. And I’ve been growing a beard. I’m prepared to apologise for only one of these things.

I’ve also been up in Auckland. As recently as last week, in fact. Primarily for the Cigarettes After Sex gig at the Powerstation, and to take a sneaky peek at the recently relocated Real Groovy Records. I had intended to write a timely review, but in truth, more than a week later, I’m still not really sure how I feel about the gig.

On one hand it was quite lovely – flawlessly crafted pop tunes, played to an almost full venue by an immaculately presented clad-in-black band at the absolute peak of its powers. Everything was note perfect, intimate, and the dark and rather solemn stage aesthetic – lighting included – generally matched the sparse emo-flecked nature of the music on offer. The band’s set was pretty much its entire discography – twelve songs, plus a one song encore. The whole thing was blissfully unhurried. An exercise in subtle slowly building intensity. Peaking with masterful take on ‘Apocalypse’.

On the other hand, an entire discography, in this instance, amounts to a gig lasting just a few ticks over an hour. One solitary hour. With no support band on offer. With no new tunes unveiled. With barely a word spoken throughout the set. And that post-‘Apocalypse’ encore turned out to be an anti-climactic ‘Dreaming of You’, from the lesser spotted 2012 EP release. Bar some gentle swaying, nobody danced, and it was the sort of night where I kept waiting for something else to happen. A harsher critic might be moved to describe the whole event as being a little sterile and lifeless, even.

Whatever the case, I left the venue with a sense of needing more. A little bit like how a recovering nicotine addict might feel after having unsatisfactory sex. At the same time, Cigarettes After Sex delivered everything I could realistically expect from an ambient dream-pop outfit specialising in the delicate art of seduction. I knew exactly what the El Paso popsters offered before I bought tickets. I just blindly hoped for something more, so it’s pointless grumbling about it now.

At the very least, it had me thinking about how conditioned I’ve become to expect a more raucous live music experience – be it bold and funky, or in terms of pure raw rock n roll. I guess I just need more energy from a live band, whatever the genre. Or perhaps it’s just that unrealistic expectation is, without question, the mother of all disappointment.

I remain a fan, the band’s self-titled album was one of my stick-on favourites from 2017, and I can scarcely wait for any new recorded material. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be in any great hurry to buy concert tickets next time they visit this part of the world.