Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Album Review: Marlon Williams - Make Way For Love (2018)

Marlon Williams is a difficult artist to categorise. His terrific voice and throwback musical style has seen him compared to the likes of Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson, Scott Walker, Richard Hawley, and Anohni. Plus a few other less obvious artists of a similar ilk. A recent Spinoff (website) profile even placed him in the same (local/New Zealand) realm as the great Maori show bands of the Fifties and Sixties. All of these reference points are certainly hard to argue with, if the evidence offered on Make Way For Love is anything to go by.

Officially, Make Way For Love is studio album number two for Williams, a follow-up to his eponymous debut of 2015, but there’s also been a live album (Live at La Niche, 2014), and during what might now be called his “early years”, he featured on a handful of releases as part of Christchurch band, The Unfaithful Ways. And not forgetting, of course, the highly acclaimed award-winning collaborative efforts he was involved in alongside local roots/country music luminary, Delaney Davidson.

It’s probably fair to say then, that at just 27 years of age, the Christchurch-born, Ngai Tahu descendant, has already crammed a whole heap of living into a relatively short timeframe. And that, in itself, is one of the key reasons Make Way For Love is such an absorbing piece of work. A broad range of life experiences helping to shape a compelling set of stories/lyrics, which nestle comfortably up against more obvious factors like his rather unique honey-drenched vocal delivery and beautifully crafted retro guitar-stylings.

There’s a couple of Davidson co-writes on the album, but mostly this is Williams baring his soul in the wake of his relationship break-up with Aldous Harding, who is no stranger to a bit of soul baring herself. In fact, heartbreak is easily the most prominent theme on the album, and one of the best tracks is a duet he performs alongside his ex-squeeze, ‘Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore’, which rather poignantly, was recorded after the relationship broke down.

Style-wise, retro-pop flavours rule throughout, and by that, I think I mean the strong influence of old-time crooning. But also in terms of instrumentation and song structure, with the majority of tunes ticking the unwritten three-to-four minute rule which tends to define pop music, be it retro, brand spanking new, or otherwise. Mostly, Williams keeps things simple and uncomplicated, which further emphasises the old-school elements at play.

Based on past listening, I had expected a far stronger country or bluegrass presence on Make Way For Love, and while it’s still there, and at the core of most things Williams does, it isn’t there in any in-yer-face kind of way, which ultimately means the whole thing defies any real genre-labelling. Which is pretty much where I came in …

Highlights: the aforementioned duet with Aldous Harding, the hook-laden ‘What’s Chasing You’, plus the title track/closer, which really does rather effortlessly invoke the spirit of those Maori show bands of yester-year.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Classic Album Review: Grace Jones - Island Life (1985)

With the phenomenon that is Grace Jones set to perform a couple of live shows in New Zealand this coming weekend, in Queenstown and in Auckland, it might be timely to take a look back at one of her blasts from the past …

At just ten tracks in length, Island Life is hardly the most comprehensive Grace Jones compilation out there, but it is close to perfect for my needs, and it contains her biggest hits from the 1977-1985 period. It is compact, concise, and places emphasis on quality over quantity. And the former fashion model-turned singer-turned actress-turned androgynous icon was at the absolute peak of her popularity when this was released in 1985, so it probably works as an ideal entry point for any newcomers.

Island Life showcases the full range of Ms Jones’ unique talents; pure funk in the form of ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’, which has to be one of the most infectious tracks ever committed to black magic plastic. Uncomplicated disco in the shape of early hits ‘I Need A Man’ and ‘Do Or Die’. Shades of soulful reggae with ‘My Jamaican Guy’. Very Eighties high-gloss production values on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (produced by Trevor Horn, and reputedly stolen from the clutches of Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Plus outright weirdness on the hugely trippy ‘Walking In The Rain’.

Jones’ penchant for covers is another feature of this compilation. While we get passable takes on ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘Love Is The Drug’, it is her superb rendition of (The Pretenders’) ‘Private Life’ which impresses most. Taken from her 1982 album Living My Life, and sung with just the right amount of brooding intensity and sense of melodrama, it is more than a match for the original. Precisely the sort of thing Grace Jones excelled at, ‘Private Life’ just eclipses ‘Pull Up’ as my own favourite Jones moment.

If I was being a pedant or suffering a severe bout of bookish tendencies (something I can’t deny), then I might complain that there was no room on this album for ‘Nipple To The Bottle’ (also off Living My Life), or the title track off the 1980 album, Warm Leatherette, or indeed, further covers from her classic 1981 release, Nightclubbing – perhaps ‘Use Me’, ‘Demolition Man’, and Iggy Pop’s title track itself. But hey, it’s probably churlish to moan too much in this instance, this is just fine as it is.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Porky Post ... Classic Album Review: The Stooges - Fun House (1970)

Another outing for Porky, looking back at a classic album just two years shy of its 50th birthday …

I am a strong believer in music coming to the listener, rather than the individual seeking out the music.

My personal tastes have shipped and shaped over the decades. I’m now at an age that I should be appreciating Dylan, Neil Young, and Fleetwood Mac, but thank Buddha that’s never occurred.

Conversely, I am these days an aficionado of more robust, deranged, and frankly unloveable sounds than in my youth, when tweedom and indie ruled. I listened to Can in my mid-20s but couldn’t stomach them. But, now ... I understand.

Many years ago I bought The Stooges’ second album, Fun House, on CD at the same time as I got (the debut) The Stooges. But the gnarly, snarly nature of Fun House just didn’t resonate with me – the songs were too long and there wasn’t an ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, so I ended up giving it away. Sacrilege, I know.

I now have this bastard on vinyl and I’ve played it a lot over the past year. It’s got to me.
It kicks into action with ‘Down On The Street’, a blistering, bruising face-off with the devil in which Iggy Pop hollers words that skimp on the thinking and focus on the stinking: “Down on the street where the faces shine/ Floatin' around, I'm a real low mind/ See a pretty thing/ Ain't no wall/ See a pretty thing/ It ain't no wall.”
It’s the riffs that matter here and they are ear-bleedingly brilliant, amounting to a near four-minute battering of the senses.
‘Loose’ is a true rock’n’roll song; a hark back to the debut classic, while retaining a connection to their soul brothers, MC5. It has a brief but memorable chorus: “I’ll stick it deep inside/ I’ll stick it deep inside/ Cause I’m loose.” Make of that what you will.
While the Stooges were releasing this, David Bowie was in a whole different stratosphere. In 1969 the Londoner released his second solo album, the self-titled David Bowie, which included the radio-friendly ‘Space Oddity’. He appeared on course for a career as an intriguing but slightly kooky singer-songwriter. In late 1970 Bowie’s first bona fide hit album The Man Who Sold The World was issued in America (and six months later in the UK). Bowie had beefed up his sound, but his voice remained fey and there were no comparisons between the soon-to-be-superstar and The Stooges. And yet, in 1976, Bowie and Iggy Pop would unite to work on two Iggy albums released in 1977, and in return the American sang backing vocals on Low in the same year. But back in 1970 it would seem inconceivable that such a team-up could be possible.
Not when you had a track like ‘TV Eye’. The third track on Fun House is a dad-fucking rollercoaster of a four-minute ride. Listening now, with punk having bludgeoned its way through the youth consciousness, it’s impossible to comprehend just how out there this would have sounded at the time, and the rest of the album for that matter. Imagine. In the mid-60s there were The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Small Faces and Hendrix, to name just a few. All pushed the envelope in some way or another but musically the bass levels were kept at modest levels. That all changed in 1969 when MC5 thrashed away to ‘Kick Out The Jams’ and The Stooges gifted the world ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, the ultimate punk song in a non-punk era.
Then there’s ‘Dirt’, which is slow, bluesy and meandering. It’s almost a dirge, almost a pop song; in a way it’s The Stooges lowering the pace, but the grungy, existential guitars and discordant drums take it elsewhere.
Flip over to ‘1970’, a natural successor to ‘1969’ from the debut. Such a shame there was no Stooges album in 1971, what could they have done there? Both songs have a tribal hypnotic rhythm that repeats to the point of mild torture, but the newer track is more frantic.

The opening line is a potent one: “Out of my mind on Saturday night/ Ninteen-seventy rollin' in sight/ Radio burnin' up above/ Beautiful baby, feed my love all night.”

The title track is the longest, at just under eight minutes, but well worth the effort. Steve Mackay’s saxophone adds to the raucous, late-night-jam feel.
But this is tame sat alongside (or chronologically just before) the album closer ‘L.A. Blues’, a totally chaotic blitz that takes some stiff drinks before being listenable for its entirety. It’s registered as an instrumental because Iggy just shouts and screams like some sort of rabid wolf. It has to have been one of the first truly out there sonic cacophonies of noise that today would be described as experimental. It’s like watching a car crash video: you are appalled but can’t take your eyes away.

Which in a way is apt description of the experience of listening to the entire album.
The Stooges crashed and burned thereafter. Drugs and more drugs didn’t do them any favours; there was one more album*, Raw Power, and the live compilation Metallic K.O. which heralded new tracks such as ‘Rich Bitch’, which would have made for a phenomenal mid-70s album, but sadly those tracks only exist only in non-produced form.
(*Two inferior post-millennium albums notwithstanding - Ed)