Thursday, 10 August 2017

Gimme Danger - A Film About The Stooges

If ever there was a band that deserves to be thrust into the public’s mind, it is The Stooges. Well, perhaps there are others too, but whatever list you care to compile, The Stooges had better be on it. They are one of the most influential bands ever. Their three proper albums might not have sold very much in their day, critics may not have spent very much time thinking about them. They were seen as, indeed they were signed on the basis of being, MC5’s ‘little brother’. But since that date, their reputation has grown and grown. Even when their figurehead, Iggy Pop, has dropped off the culturally relevant map, they have remained an essential touchstone for any band that deserves to be called ‘rock’.

So ‘Gimme Danger’, a documentary directed by Jim Jarmusch (no less), is very welcome. Obviously, front and centre is Jim Osterberg himself. But we have contributions from all the central players, bar Dave Alexander (who sadly passed in 1975); both Asheton brothers, their little sister, Steve Mackay, and James Williamson. It was very nice to see something of the background of Pop and the Asheton brothers. How they came to music. It was fascinating to hear that Iggy had fulfilled his musical apprenticeship in Chicago behind R&B artists. This was a revelation and a helpful one in understanding where the ‘Iggy’ persona came from. It was similarly interesting to see how they began to take themselves seriously as a band, rather than simply 4 guys who really liked to get high. There were also some insights into the personal costs that came from being in a band that required total physical, psychological and pharmaceutical commitment, especially in the period between Fun House (1970) and Raw Power (1973).

However, it came across as hagiography. There was little critical assessment. When things went wrong it was someone else, or it was a one off, or it was drugs. Where criticisms were mentioned, they were brushed off. For instance, Iggy recounts that Joey Ramone saw The Stooges during the time of the recording of Fun House and the band plays nothing from the first album and that Ramone thought this disgusting. OK, why? Why does Iggy disagree with Ramone? That would have been an interesting discussion to dig into.

The film assumed that the records themselves were unimpeachable. They are great great records – that is not in question – but there was still no sense of where things could have been better or more functional. Given the people involved in these records and the decisions made, there could have been so much more said. John Cale produced the first LP. Where was he? I know that they were not so keen on the mix of the first album, but it was the album that made them and contains some of their iconic tracks. Why not have some discussion of that? Bowie produced Raw Power. Again, there were discussions regarding the mix. But where was he? Bowie was instrumental in reviving Pop’s career, in getting him a new contract, and remained integral to his career deep into the 70s. If we have talking heads footage from Ron Asheton who died in 2009, surely some conversation with Bowie would have been possible – especially since the film was ready by April 2016, suggesting that much of the filming was done in 2015 or earlier – i.e. while Bowie was still alive. All we got was some bitching about Tony DeFries, Bowie’s manager at the time.

Finally, the movie pretty much stops in 1973. There is some material about their inauguration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is nice, and about how Jay Mascis was involved in getting the band back together, again nice. But there is nothing about the two albums, The Weirdness (2007) and Ready to Die (2013). Truthfully, they are not held in very high esteem, but to remain silent on them seems dishonest.

Overall, it is important to give this band their due. They deserve it. Their place in the pantheon is secure and the film gives solid evidence for why. However, it could have been more. I’d certainly recommend it, but not without qualifications.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Ten Great Single Disk Compliations

One of my deepest character flaws is that I am a little easy to troll. I know that the person is trying to get a rise out of me. I know that what they have just said is ridiculous. I am pretty sure that they think it is ridiculous too (even if they may want to argue that there is a kernel of truth to it). Nonetheless, I still want to either beat them or at the least berate them for their apparent stupidity.

I say this because a number of years ago a friend of mine trolled me. Knowing that I am an obsessive collector of music, she said to me, 'if you love music so much, why do you buy compilations - surely you would hunt down the originals?'

Compilations are an odd thing from one perspective - they are tracks yanked out of their original context and forced into a new artificial format, where they must rub shoulders with other tracks from other places. However, on the other hand, they perform a service that is invaluable. They produce a short cut into a world that may be too difficult or foreboding to access single-handed. No matter how much we might value music, uncovering the seminal tracks from a specific time or place or genre might be too time consuming or too costly or both. It may be that you might go on to find the original releases, or it may be that the original releases are impossibly rare or simply not available.

Thus, compilations play an essential role to the music lover and a good compilation is priceless. This list (and some further lists already lined up) are intended to flag up some compilations that I have enjoyed and found to be first rate. Some of them have uncovered new world, whereas some have simply encapsulated what is special about a given scene.

I have specifically focused on single disk compilations here. Primarily this is because a single disk can be digested in a single sitting. Multiple disks can be wearying, even if they are excellent. Fundamentally I hope that you consider checking out some of these albums if you have not already come across them, and I feel that by sticking to single disks you are more likely to connect with them. Maybe I will do some more lists of multiple disk sets, but in my preparation for this I already have 40 compilations I would like to write about, so they will have to wait.

So, here are ten. As ever they are in no particular order, with no particular agenda. I just hope that, if you check them out, you enjoy them as I have.

Tropicalia (Soul Jazz 2005)

"Tropicalia mixed American and British psychedelic rock and pop with Brazilian roots and European avant-garde and experimental music to create a new sound that was both distinctly Brazilian and truly international. Ideologically they mixed high art with mass culture and mocked both the military dictatorship under which they were living at the time as much as the militant left wing artists that wanted to bring them down." (From the CD Booklet)
Soul Jazz have rightly made a name for itself as must-buy compilation label. Their albums are often definitive statements of the scenes, styles, places, people that they are intended to depict. Sleeve notes are typically informative and pertinent and the design is high quality. Soul Jazz had already established a pretty formidable reputation, but this - their highest rated compilation - set a new standard. (It is, according to Rate Your Music, in the 15 best compilations ever - top 5 if you include single disks comps only.)

So why is it so good? It captures the scene, includes the major players, points to further areas to explore, includes a 48 page booklet explaining and offering a detailed history of Tropicalia. So as a document it is exemplary. But as with any document, no matter how good, it is wholly dependent on what is being documented. Luckily, this scene is one of the richest and most beautiful bubbles of the whole of musical history. The talent, the inspiration, the influences on display here are truly unique and this CD captures the excitement and inventiveness of the scene. Furthermore, it gives a very good set of reasons for why it went on to be so revered and influential.

It might be cheating, but I will end this review with stealing a review of it from the internet (a RYM user called 'Blowout'). I think it gives a very succinct impression for why this is essential: "Imagine you'd never heard any music whatsoever from the major artists of England (or alternatively the USA) from the late 60s. Then imagine an album that compiles the best tracks of the best 6 artists from England/USA from that period. Imagine how it would blow your head?"

Never the Same (Honest John's 2005)

Folk music did not begin at any point, any more than it has had any point of decline - like the poor, folk music is always with us. But this is not to say that it has not suffered ebbs and flows. In the 1960s, folk music had what could legitimately be described as a renaissance. From the inception of the decade (strictly speaking the middle of the previous) there was renewed interest in the traditional songs of England, nurtured by the touring fellow-travellers from the States; Dylan, Simon, Franks. This was, on both sides of the Atlantic, fed into the rock machine, and folk-rock became a vital force until the turn of the decade. At which point it either went back to its roots or became a novel irrelevance - so, if we are to be cruel, it was sort of irrelevant either way (commercially, at least). Nonetheless, this compilation looks at some of the recordings made by Bill Leader for the Leader or Trailer label in the mid-70s. Leader's approach was to record the music as simply as possible, on 2 or 4 track, with next no overdubs or embellishments. The music captured could never have been further from the glam, prog, punk or disco that it was contemporaneous with. 

Instead, it was stark, simple and achingly beautiful. For most tracks it is simply a voice and an instrument. Sometimes, not even that. There is a heavy Gaelic tone to the compilation, pulling tunes from Scotland or Ireland. The only track that might have an inkling of familiarity is Tony Rose's cover of Bert Jansch's 'Blackwaterside' (credit shamelessly stolen by Jimmy Page as Black Mountain Side from Led Zeppelin 1). Otherwise, here lie some of the unsung (or unsung enough) heroes of 70s folk; Nic Jones, Dick Gaughan, The Boys of the Lough. The real gems here are two tracks from the Legendary album 'Bright Phoebus' from Mike & Lal Waterson*. Lal's heavy, dark, Northern voice soars over the delicate guitars and rare strings. This CD rewards repeated listens despite the strict simplicity of the music. If I ever needed to convince someone that there was value in British folk beyond 1970, this is where I'd take them.

* 'Bright Phoebus' has finally been given a wildly overdue reissue on Domino records.

Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label (Numero 2004)

Nowadays Chicago-based Numero have made a pretty solid name for themselves as a premium archivist label, having stretched out from their initial soul roots to picking up obscure gospel, slowcore and even LOTR inspired metal. Just check out the love and care and that has been bestowed on the discographies of Bedhead or Codeine. But back in 2004, this must have been a curiosity with little context to point the way. Numero releases are beautifully packaged but until you get beyond the cellophane there is precious little actual information. On the rear there is the title of the series 'Eccentric Soul'. Below this, in smaller type: 'The Capsoul Label'. Aside from the number 001, which is also found on the front cover, there is no other text at all. On the front is a water damaged photograph of Bill Moss (who?) manning the controls alongside the now familiar logo. This is unhelpful beyond even that of Factory records releases.

And yet, those who ventured beyond the cellophane were treated to a full tracklisting - inside the slipcase - beautifully compiled sleevenotes and most of all a collection of tunes that almost no-one had ever heard before. And those who had heard it, had most likely forgotten. But what tunes! The Eccentric Soul series has now established itself as a first rate resurrector of obscure soul. Whilst some tracks might have been familiar to the cognoscenti or Indiana Jones level crate diggers, almost all are unknown.

Amongst the revelations present is the awesome vocal group Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum and Durr. The may sound like a third rate law firm but their 'You're All I Need to Make It' should have been a hit - it is comfortably the equal of The Detroit Emeralds or The Elgins. Marion Black's tenor delivery is stately and rich. Kool Blues 'I'm Gonna Keep on Lovin' You' could have been a Sam & Dave hit. Bill's Moss's own tracks are classic, specifically the conscious anthem 'Sock It To'Em Soul Brother'. Elijah & The Ebonites' 'Hot Grits' brings the funk. The stars of the show is The Four Mints who are a hop and skip away from 60s' Stevie or early Jacksons. In short, this set - like most of the Eccentric Soul releases - is a hard luck story. If circumstances had been just a little different, one or more of these songs would have hit, and no doubt one of the above would have been household names now.

Michael Mayer - Immer (Kompakt 2002)

I find it hard to write about this album. I don't know about you but the world of electronic music - and German minimal techno especially - is the most foreboding of genres. It is so wide and so anonymous, made up of endless 12" singles than may or may not be remixed by someone else that you may or may not have heard of. Probably the latter. It doesn't help that the music itself adds to that anonymity by leaving few traces of overt personality. I know that I risk sounding simplistic, or perhaps geriatric, when I say that the difference, for me, between good electronic music and bad electronic music is that the former will lead me to feel something, whereas the latter will leave me feeling nothing, save frustrated in its impotence. So all credit then to Mayer and his legendary mix-cd 'Immer' (although Mayer's name is presented like it is his album, it is a mix-cd and thus a compilation) since it elicits a lot of feelings - mostly happiness, a good deal of bobbling up and down. 

In short, it contains a really nice array of textures and grooves and it maintains the focus without being busy. Nothing is rushed, and yet nothing outstays its welcome. It also offers a look into the world of minimal techno and while it makes no claim to function as a primer to the genre, it does provide a sense of why this music can be so powerful. On the surface, minimal techno can appear a wash of nothing, but a good listen to Immer illustrates that beneath it all there is a lot going on. And that alone justifies this album as worth investigating.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out (Castle 1997)

I tend to veer away from compilations on Castle or Spectrum labels. Not so much because they are bad, but there tends to be better, more lovingly compiled examples to choose from if you look a little deeper. That said, sometimes they get it exactly right and this is one such example. This encapsulates the divergent trends of late 60s counter-culture perfectly, with seminal and exact selections throughout. There are very few tracks that are new or surprising, but if you wanted the perfect example of what The Byrds brought to the party or Zappa or Velvet Underground or Love or even some of the lesser known bands like Vanilla Fudge, this CD has them. Ignore the dodgy cover and the perfunctory info, it does what it has to and no more.

Dread Meets Punk Rockers Uptown (Heavenly 2001)

There are a million great reggae compilations out there. Soul Jazz built their whole reputation digging through the Studio One vaults producing a series of great reggae compilations, Blood & Fire specialised on reggae, as did Adrian Sherwood's Pressure Sounds label. So why is this CD from a decidedly non-specialist label so good and the first reggae compilation I will highlight. Quite simply, it is a perfect mix of mid-70s roots and dub. It includes some of the most famous artists and recordings: Culture's classic 'Two Sevens Clash', Junior Murvin's 'Police and Thieves', The Congos' 'Fisherman'. Even when the track itself is not necessarily immediate, the artist is essential: Big Youth, Horace Andy, Lee Perry.

The mix itself is thoughtful and sensitive; offering something introductory for the newcomer but maintaining a solid entertainment value for the longtime fan of the music. This is exactly what we would expect from the compiler - the legendary Don Letts, who has spent a lifetime introducing and promoting reggae. He has even slipped in a few tracks that you might have missed - I was not aware of Sylford Walker's 'Deuteronomy' when I picked this up. Seven minutes of deep religious deejaying over a driving persistent dub. This is roots reggae to dance to, to meditate to, (if it is your thing) to smoke to. The mix has sprinkled in a few well chosen dubs, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby and Tappa Zukie appear in dub form. While it is a mix, not one track is compromised - another plus point. My only criticism is that to compensate for that last point, Letts inserts vocal clips from old movies or intros from other records between the tracks. These are mostly short and ignorable, but I'd rather he simply hadn't. All the same, this is highly recommended.

Black Roots: Funky and Abstract Directions in Jazz 1965-1975 (Atlantic/Ace 2001)

The subtitle of this compilation is, I think, a little overstated. I would say that while some of it is a bit funky, if you are coming to this expecting much in that direction you might be disappointed. Similarly, while some of it does deserve the epithet 'abstract', not all of it does. Atlantic were pretty liberal and generous about who and what was recorded, but I'd say 50% of this is fairly straight-ahead 60s jazz. 

So, with those caveats made, what is good about it? The general standard, even of those tracks that are more traditional, is very good. We have some solid players here: Eddie Harris, Yusef Lateef, David Newman. Consequently the standard is high - Lateef and Harris especially bring the good. Shirley Scott's cover of the Isley's 'It's Your Thing' is solid too. 

But then, there are solid tracks that do push the boundaries a little. Not really jazz, but awesome all the same is Dr. John's 'I Walk on Gilded Splinters'. The track summons up the swamp-like voodoo atmosphere of New Orleans more than anything else. Everything about it feels murky, dangerous, occult. But then there's Eugene McDaniel's ode to Mick, 'Jagger the Dagger'. McDaniels is an official genius in my book, having a solid mainstream career before writing classics for people like Roberta Flack ('Compared to What') and then releasing two of the most awesome albums of the early 70s ('Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse' and 'Outlaw'). 'Jagger the Dagger' has a sleazy lilting groove that lets Gene and the girls grind up against it. Awesome! British Joe Harriot-John Mayer Double Quintet fuses Jazz with Indian Raga and the result is spacey and sultry. Jim Pepper's 'Witchi Tai To', which could tilt a little too heavily into TV-theme territory if it wasn't so damned catchy and absorbing. 

In all, this compilation succeeds despite its limitations. As long as you take it as it is and do not get too caught up with the subtitle, it has more than enough to push open the gates. If you like your jazz a little out there, or even if you like your rock a little jazzy, there'll be something here to pique your interest. In all, in the 15 or so years that I have had this album, I have always been able to pop it on and find something new for my ears.

Sounds of the New West (Uncut 1998)

As a rule I ignore CDs that come from the front of magazines. In the attic I have a box or two filled with unlistened-to CDs from various magazines. I know that sometimes they will have things that will be interesting, or perhaps even revelatory. All the same, while I often followed the advice of the reviews within the magazine, the CDs on the front were left to gather dust. It doesn't quite make sense, but there you go....

Anyhow, there is one major exception and anecdotal evidence suggests that it was an exception for many many people. In fact, I would go so far as suggesting that the CD above had a massive impact on the musical tastes of the UK, introducing as it did a significant raft of the key bands in the genre that came to be called alt-country. While some of the bands included had been around for a while, and the precursors of the genre (Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown) had formed and split in the very early 90s, I am not even sure the term existed before 1998. The earliest reference I can find for the term is that year. Anyway, for me at least, this CD marked my introduction to a number of bands and artists that have burrowed deep into my psyche and I suspect will be with me forever.

Amongst these are two old-timers who significantly predate this movement; Gram Parsons (strictly, The Flying Burrito Brothers) and Emmylou Harris. Parson's 'Sin City' is probably the only song I would ever perform karaoke to, if it is even possible. As a starting point for Parsons' view of country as cosmic american music, it is perfect. Of course, Emmylou was a fellow traveller with Parsons until his death, whereupon she carried on, keeping his vision alive whilst embracing all that Country music could do. The track chosen here is one of the most divergent moments from the album by the same title 'Wrecking Ball'. Produced by Daniel Lanois, it has that other-worldly, reverb heavy sound that you'd expect. Also, it was written by another godparent to the genre (as was The Walkabouts' 'On the Beach'), Neil Young. Few songs ever are as beautiful or as heart-breaking or catch that universe in which Country Music is situated. The singer, as the song, embodies the soul and the heart of both Country and it's Alt-variation. 

Amongst the more contemporary bands, there is not one duff track. The Handsome Family bring their most depressing song and their most gorgeous, 'Weightless Again' - a song about the moments of faltering consciousness after suicide. Calexico, at the beginning of their sterling career, tell a story of accidental murder ('Trigger'). Neal Casal, a criminally under-rated songwriter, sings of  inevitable failure ('Today I Gonna Bleed'). Willard Grant Conspiracy offers a haunting and yet lush account of the loss of faith ('Evening Mass'). It's all pretty grim, to be honest, but never so uplifting. The mandolin solo in the latter track always makes me want to throw my hands in the air. Perhaps it is best summed up by outsiders, 16 Horsepower and their brand of gothic americana, who as deep southern preachers tell us that we have dug a hole, the hole of our own sin, a hole that we fell in (Coal Black Horses). I haven't even mentioned Lambchop or my favourite Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, here in his own name, Will Oldham. 

All of the above named artists are well represented in my collection. Several of their records would be counted amongst my favourite albums ever. This compilation has done more than any other to change my tastes. Not only that but it provided a serious push in my re-evaluation of country music. And all from a free CD from the front of a magazine...

This is Soul (Atlantic, 1968/2007)

This album is one of two compilations that have legitimately changed my life. (The other is, if you're wondering Sounds of the New West [above]). This is probably the most impactful purely by dint of when I encountered it. As a young record collector, the first port of call is always to ransack your parents' collection. My mother's stack of records was not that big but it had a few serious gems and amongst them was the original 1968 release of this album. Let me begin by reprinting the original track-listing:

A1 –Wilson Pickett - Mustang Sally
A2 –Carla Thomas - B-A-B-Y
A3 –Arthur Conley - Sweet Soul Music
A4 –Percy Sledge  - When A Man Loves A Woman
A5 –Sam & Dave - I Got Everything I Need
A6 –Ben E. King - What Is Soul?
B1 –Otis Redding - Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
B2 –Eddie Floyd - Knock On Wood
B3 –Solomon Burke - Keep Looking
B4 –Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)
B5 –Percy Sledge - Warm And Tender Love
B6 –Wilson Pickett - Land Of A Thousand Dances

I am willing to bet that even if your knowledge of soul music is not all that, you know seven or eight of these tracks without having to go remind yourself. Those that might be a little unfamiliar will likely become clear with a quick listen. My point is that as a primer of soul music, specifically Southern soul, this is perfect. While any soul fan can think of tracks or artists that they might prefer to see (especially with two Percy Sledge songs here?? ) this is a perfect point of entry and gives the newcomer ample reasons to see why someone might devote their lives to the genre. 

For me, even though a goth, it blew my mind. Friends would be mystified when they received a mix-tape from me, finding it with Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding amidst the Sisters or Alien Sex Fiend. No-one ever complained - more often than not, the surprise was welcome. This music has been the soundtrack to my life and in recent years has become a fully-fledged obsession - the energy, the feeling, the joy, the church, the depths, the sheer primal passion. Here is life put to music.

In 2007, Atlantic reissued this album on CD alongside a massive 17 bonus tracks. Again, the selection was exemplary; and it became even more so the first soul CD anyone (everyone) should buy. I don't feel like I need to write much about this music other than simply to say what's there - the tracks will account for themselves:

Sam & Dave - Hold On I'm Coming, The Bar-Kays - Soul Finger, King Curtis - Memphis Soul Stew, Otis Redding - Hard To Handle, Aretha Franklin - Save Me, Archie Bell & The Drells - Tighten Up, Wilson Pickett - Funky Broadway, Otis Redding & Carla Thomas - Tramp, The Mad Lads - Get Out Of My Life, Barbara Lynn - You're Losing Me, Soul Brothers Six - Some Kind Of Wonderful, Jeanne & The Darlings - Soul Girl, Arthur Conley - Funky Street, Eddie Floyd - Big Bird, Soul Clan - That's How It Feels, Johnny Taylor - Ain't That Loving You (For More Reasons Than One), Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay

What's not to love?

This gives me the chills...

Whine & Grine - Club Ska '67 (Trojan/Island 1967/1998)

Oddly, I came to ska a while after reggae. I was too young for the Two Tone thing in the late 70s/early 80s. I liked Madness and The Specials well enough, but I didn't really see it as any different other to pop music in general. Even the handful of reggae songs that caught my attention were not seen as very different. Perhaps that is as much about the radical changes that were happening in pop music at the time as anything else... Anyway, even when I did perceive reggae as reggae in the later 80s, I came at it via dub (specifically from On-U Sound records), rather than its chronological progenitors. In fact, by the time I caught this album in 1991, it might as well have been a wholly unrelated genre. Aside from its devotion to the off-beat, it seems to share relatively little with the hazy, dubby skank of Big Youth or Prince Far I.

So I moved to Birmingham and into a house with Lee and Sandra. They were a few years older than me and because Sandra was an actress, they tended to be away a lot. So I did what I often did when left unattended in other people's houses - I listen to their records. They had lots of interesting records and I picked up a lot from them. One of the high points was the original Club Ska '67 album. This was a very different year from the '67 I was familiar with. Sgt. Pepper and psychedelia or Monterey or Stax and Otis or Motown and Marvin seem a long way away. (I have since learned to see that the distance is not quite as far as it seemed, but anyway...) Again, like the This is Soul comp above, it is populated by some of the archetypes of the genre; The Skatalites' Guns of Navarone, Desmond Dekker's 007 (Shanty Town), Baba Brooks' Guns Fever, The Rulers' Copasetic (I always wondered where Delboy's catch-phrase came from).

Every track is vibrant, full alive. Even the slower ballads have an immediate energy and the status of this as dance music is unavoidable. A track like Dancing Mood by Delroy Wilson is a mellower track, only just mid-tempo. Like many mid-60s Jamaican music, it owes plenty to the early 60s R&B coming in radio waves from Florida (it is a cover of The Tams original). But the rhythm and musicianship is first rate; Jackie Mittoo plays piano and is it wishful thinking to propose saxophone by the legendary 'Deadly' Headly Bennett? Everything is understated but in its right place. Side two is full of these cool, sly monsters; Bob's wife Rita with the catchy Pied Piper, Justin Hines' single entendre Rub Up, Push Up, The Gaylads' Stop Making Love.

I suppose that it is the rowdier side one that is most typical. These are the tracks that were covered and were direct inspiration for Jerry Dammers and the Nutty Boys. In 1998, Island reissued the compilation and perhaps to drive the point home included one new track, Whine and Grine by the massive Prince Buster. This is street music, it is party music; it is dangerous but it is fun and impossible not to want to move. Another great and highly recommended compilation.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Ten Albums That Impressed Me This Week (19/3)

Brian Eno - Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy

Album of the week. Utterly blown away by this again. Only his second album and already in total command. Influenced so many.

Tom Waits - Blue Valentine

Can't go wrong with a bit of Classic Tom Waits

The Beatles - Revolver

A perennial. Never fails.

Al Green - Call Me


Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 

Long time since I listened to this. I am often tempted to think of Wilco as 'one of the those bands'. I suppose they are, but that isn't a bad thing.

Omar Souleyman - Bahdeni Nami

I bought this at the same time as 'Wenu Wenu'. I think I am supposed to prefer that one, but I don't.

Gravenhurst - The Western Lands

I enjoy this a lot. I should listen to this guy more often.

Maximo Park - A Certain Trigger

Bella's favourite. My favourite of Bella's records.

Gene Chandler - There Was a Time

Very enjoyable middle album from Chicago legend. Check out the title track - holy moly!

Shabazz Palaces - Black Up

Recollections of the Wraith never fails!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Ten (Mostly Soul) Versions of Eleanor Rigby

Eleanor Rigby is not the most covered song by The Beatles, but it is up there. Whosampled identifies over 130 covers of the song.  It could be argued that it is a difficult song to cover well. So much of what makes it great is the string arrangement from George Martin, not only the affecting vocal performance by Paul McCartney (one of his best). Nonetheless, here are ten versions. We've primarily focused, as you'd expect, on soul versions of the song. Which is your favourite?

NOTE: Bella tried to help with this, but the relentless Eleanor-Rigby-ness became a little too much. Maybe try this over a couple of sittings...?

The Four Tops

One of our favourites. It has an amazing arrangement, which is funky as hell. One of the things we have noticed in this game is that sometimes the backing vocals can be problematic, however, as you'd expect from The Four Tops, the backing vocals are awesome. Bass guitar, probably James Jamieson, is exemplary. If anything could be said negatively about this version, the mood is slightly lost by the music - it is hard to sympathise with an old woman's plight when you're having this good a time. 8/10

Gene Chandler

Another great version. Again a funky reading of the song, albeit in a slightly lollopping way. The vocals are great - as you'd expect from the Duke of Earl. The instrumentation is solid; nice flute solo and a very restrained use of strings throughout. 7/10

Aretha Franklin

Having double checked the studio or the live version, this HAD to be the live version, which is funkier and fuller - more energetic on all fronts. The arrangement is amazing. I like how she takes ownership of ER, singing it in the first person. That said, Bella wasn't wowed. Overall, this is a soulful version but the soul is not intrusive or distracting in the way that it is in Ray Charles' version. Also of note, the backing vocals very good 9/10

Richie Havens

Richie Havens has one of the best voices of all of these versions. Furthermore, Havens is one of those artists who is hard to pigeonhole. Is he soul? jazz? folk? Much like Nina Simone or Terry Callier, he straddles all of these genres at some point. Consequently his version is similarly different. It is jazzier, with an odd arrangement. One of its main drawbacks is an over-busy piano accompaniment. I like the funky drumming in places, though, although it can get a little martial at times. 5/10

Kim Weston

This was one of the first soul covers of the song that ever registered for me and it is a doozy. Fundamentally, it is a less busy version of Aretha's, but with less funk and more drive, and a chilling string arrangement. While it doesn't smack you upside the head with its horns (like Bobby Taylor's), they are dramatic. And Weston's voice is awesome too. 8/10

P.P. Arnold

P.P. Arnold was, like Gloria Jones and Madeline Bell, an American soul singer who set up camp in the UK. However, her proximity to the original has not really helped here. She is a good singer, and she offers a nice, clean performance. However, it never really moves me. The arrangement is nice, enough! It is restrained with a pleasing use of flute, but it is hard to get exciting. There is a break mid-song, which leaves me very cold - I wish it finished at that point, despite the fact that the instrumental coda is quite pleasant. (that said, Bella was not convinced). 4/10

Ray Charles

Ray Charles is another voice that you can never get enough of - so it is never outstays its welcome. That said, Charles' version has a very full arrangement, that is too musical. Consequently, it lacks mood and feeling. It's just another Ray Charles tune, rather than Eleanor Rigby. I also found the Raelette's backing vocal distracting at times. Definitely not a contender 5/10

Bobbie Gentry

One of the most interesting versions. This is certainly going to one of the more distinctive - Bonnie Gentry is best pegged as a Country singer, although with a solid Southern pedigree and thus not SO dissimilar to the soul versions noted above. Firstly, Gentry's is voice beautiful and presented very intimately (she is so high in the mix). It is a very restrained arrangement and performance. THe instrumentation is relaxed, but isn't afraid to make it's presence felt where it counts. This is definitely a version worth noting. 8/10 (Bella's favourite)

Bobby Taylor

Can't find on youtube! So here's a Spotify link.

This is the biggest, most bombastic, overwrought version. It begins with a trebly wah-wah guitar and weirdly choral vocals before breaking into a psychedelic groove. The horns, the timpani, the echoes - This moves so quickly into an over-dramatic territory with repeated stabs of horn, strange almost industrial noises, gushing strings. Frankly, I love it, but I can see just as well how it might have an opposite effect. Bella, at this point, had just given up on ever hearing this song again, so she was unable to offer valuable counter-point to its excesses. Taylor is a great singer - vastly under-rated in the Motown stable - and he throws everything ever at it. Oh yes, it's over six minutes long... 9/10

Vanilla Fudge

Without doubt this is the odd one out. The psyche-rock band killed it with their cover of 'You Keep Me Hanging On', but here... not really. It has an unbearably long intro, which leans towards the almost avant-garde. When the vocals finally appear, they are suitably mournful, but ultimately this is all too psyche to succeed. I do quite like the vocal round in the final two minutes, but getting to the five and half minute point is asking too much for most, I'd say. Shame. 2/10

However, this three minute version is much tighter and has less of the unnecessary mood setting and more of the psyche wig-out. Much better. 7/10

Friday, 3 March 2017

Ten Albums That Impressed Me This Week (5/3)

Ibibio Sound Machine - Ibibio Sound Machine

Miles Davis - A Tribute to Jack Johnson

Dr. John - The Sun, Moon and Herbs

Various Artists - Motown Live Revue

Marillion - Misplaced Childhood

Barry White - I've Got So Much To Give

Fleetwood Mac - Tusk

Big Boi - Sir Luscious Left Foot... The Son of Chico Dusty

Peter Gabriel - So

David Bowie - Lodger

I've used the US cover here

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Ten Albums That Impressed Me This Week (26/2)

Roxy Music - Country Life

Bill Fay - Bill Fay

Millie Jackson - Still Caught Up

The Facts of Life - Sometimes

U2 - Boy

John Cale - Music For a New Society

The Cars - Shake It Up

Various Artists - The Birth of Soul Vol. 2

Portishead - Dummy

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Ask Forgiveness

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Ten Songs That Were Number 1 On This Date (26/2)

Another fortnight, another 10 Number 1s.

It's a 70s heavy selection - but several solid classics.

Which do you think is the best?

1958 - Michael Holliday - The Story of My Life

1959 - Elvis Presley - One Night

1966 - Nancy Sinatra - These Boots Are Made For Walkin'

1969 - Peter Sarstedt - Where Do You Go To My Lovely?

1972 - Chicory Tip - Son of My Father

1974 - Suzi Quatro - Devil Gate Drive

1975 - Steve Harley & The Cockney Rebel - Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)

1976 - The Four Seasons - December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)

1977 - Leo Sayer - When I Need You

1984 - Frankie Goes to Hollywood - Relax

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Ten Reasons Why I Might Lose It If Someone Talks of the 'Will of the People' In Relation to Brexit Once More.

I don't intend this blog to become very political, but sometimes things get under your skin, you know? One such thing is the phrase, rolled out again and again, 'the will of the people'. The purpose of the phrase is to suggest that any dissent on Brexit is anti-democratic and therefore to be condemned. And it's driving me insane...

  • I opposed Brexit, am I not one of the people? What's more, over 16m opposed Brexit - are they not 'the people' too?
  • Give the nature of the debate and the dishonesty of the campaigns it is not clear what the people wanted
  • Brexit was never effectively defined. Just because the people voted for x, it does not follow that they wanted x1 or x2 or so on. Therefore we cannot say exactly what the 'will of the people' is.
  • 'The People' are often wrong. Just because the people want something it does not follow that they should get it.
  • It fails the fact-value distinction - it may be a fact that the people want x, it does not follow that there is any moral obligation that x should be done
  • It is the democratic duty of our MPs, Lords and judiciary to scrutinise and challenge the proposals that are made in or though Parliament. As such they are not running against the 'will of the people' - they are doing their job
  • The term 'will of the people' is nonsensical. People are not in any sense so singular that they could have a will.
  • The voices most predisposed to using the phrase have been demonstrated again and again to not have the interests of the people in mind (Daily Mail, Daily Express, some politicians)
  • Given the contentious nature of the debate, it is not a given that a majority of the people would still will for that outcome. 
  • The age range of the people who willed for Brexit is such that the majority will have died before we have, if we ever do, leave the EU. The same cannot be said for those who will live to see it. Might we have a time where respecting the will of the people is equivalent to ignoring the will of the living?

So, argue for Brexit if you must. If someone is arguing back, however. then please respond with something better than that they are failing to respect the 'will of the people'. 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ten Reasons Why Mean Streets is the Definitive Scorsese Movie

Talk about Scorsese and a certain number of films will come up quickly; Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull. These are, without question, amongst the greatest examples of American Cinema. It is also true to say that one thing that is often neglected is how diverse Scorsese films are. For every classic crime drama there is a Kundun, a Last Temptation of Christ or an Age of Innocence. That said, there are a set number of things that we typically anticipate when thinking about these films; for example, we think of them as New York films.

Anyway, while I don't expect to convince anyone of this, I contend that one film is the Scorsesiest of them all. One film encapsulates all the stereotypes so much that if you wanted a one-stop shop for a classic Scorsese movie, this should be the one. So forget Taxi Driver and the rest; Mean Streets is the one.

It just happens to be a bonus that Mean Streets is my favourite movie. I appreciate that it is not the best movie, or even the best Scorsese movie, but it presses my movie-buttons like no other.


Aside from possibly Tarantino, no director has utilised the power of a pop music soundtrack more effectively. There are songs that have been utterly redefined by their use in Scorsese or Tarantino's movies. Think of Neil Diamond's 'Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon' (or the near identical Urge Overkill version) and the first thought is Pulp Fiction. Similarly, the second half of Layla is now the soundtrack to De Niro's cleaning up killing spree in Goodfellas.

The soundtrack to Mean Streets is pretty much perfect. Aside from the obligatory Stones tracks (including the criminally neglected 'Tell Me') and Cream, there are classics from The Ronettes, Shirelles and Marvelettes. Johnny Ace makes an appearance alongside some proper Italian ballads courtesy of Giuseppe De Stefano and Renato Carosone. In short, it is inspired.


While it is true that Scorsese has reflected various American communities throughout his career, none of them are his so much as Italian-American. He even made a documentary movie by that title that centred around his parents - it's been a while since I saw it, but I remember it fondly. Anyway, Mean Streets is grounded firmly in the tightness of that community. One of the perpetual themes of commentary on the film is the extent to which it is basically Scorsese's life during the mid-60s. I came across this quote via youtube (of all places):

"In my mind, it's not really a film - it's a declaration or a statement of who I am and how I was living; those thoughts and dilemmas and conflicts were very much a part of my life up to that point in time...There is no message. It's something that came out of me organically. The only way to express it was: camera and dialogue and actors and color and music. In my mind it was a representation of who I was, my friends, and where I came from. The genesis was my life."

Robert De Niro

No actor is as associated with Scorsese as De Niro - not even DiCaprio, who has starred in more recent movies. (Interesting side-note: Scorsese's collaboration with DiCaprio came as a result of a recommendation from De Niro, who had worked with Leo on 'This Boy's Life'.) In Mean Streets, De Niro gives one of his most manic performances. Sure, he is more iconic in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but here he is hungry. The frenzy of Johnny-Boy is beyond compare.

New York

The city is as much of a character here as Charlie (Harvey Keitel), Johnny-Boy (Robert De Niro) or Michael (Richard Romanus). New York and the Feast of San Gennaro form the backdrop for the story and adds and explains the heightened sense of chaos that the film relies upon. While it is far narrower in scope than some of the grander representations of the city (Manhattan, Die Hard 3), focusing firmly upon one small neighbourhood, it is still unmistakably a New York film - even if it was filmed largely in Los Angeles.


Mean Streets is significantly less violent than many of Scorsese's later films and by the same token, the vision of gangsters or organised crime is much more sedate. In fact, the most violent scene in the film is mostly played for laughs (the bar fight, you mook!). However, the threat of violence, even if it is more moderate, is pervasive and persistent and is what makes Charlie's penance meaningful.

The role of organised crime is far closer here to the Godfather, than to Scarface or even Goodfellas. It is a family business; it is immediate and part of the fabric of the community whether you approved or not. Part of the charm of Mean Streets is the intimacy of the presence of crime - the parochialism of Giovanni - he's just looking out for his nephew.

Scorsese's own family

Here it is almost certainly a matter of finance, but the appearance of la familia Scorsese is as much a trademark of the director as anything else. His mother appears twice in the film - once as the woman in the hallway and again as the woman shutting the window at the very end of the film.


Scorsese movies, even when they are deadly serious, reflect moments of life in which cracks of humour shine in. We see it in the famous 'You talkin' to me' scene in Taxi Driver, Jimmy 'two times' in Goodfellas, the whole of Afterhours. Scorsese can move from perilous to hilarious and back better than any director I can think of and Mean Streets is no exception. From the 'Mook' bar fight to the improvised conversation between Charlie and Johnny-Boy, when it needs to reflect the humour that is found in all aspects of life, Mean Streets is very funny.

Inventive shots

It is well documented that Scorsese is a perpetual student of film. As a child he was sickly, and so most of his youth was spent at the cinema and he soaked everything in. If you've not seen A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, I cannot recommend it highly enough (I might have to rewatch it myself). In it, he not only demonstrates his knowledge of cinema, but his unbridled love of it. As such, even on this, his third feature (it could be argued his first real movie), his technique is already advanced. Given the lowkey and small nature of the film - in terms of its scope - and its moderate budget, Scorsese still manages to use the camera in ways that dazzle and draw you into the world. You can smell the world that Scorsese is showing you - that's a good filmmaker right there.

Being simultaneously progressive and regressive

This is probably the most contentious point on this list. I find that Scorsese, because of his subjects, often portray positions that are regressive - sexist, racist, homophobic etc. The worldviews and assumptions of his characters are the worldviews and assumptions of the traditional and typically chauvinistic. However, Scorsese is not that character and so he often finds ways of subverting the regressive and raising questions of it, either through the story or through the lens by which the story is told. Raging Bull is probably the clearest example here.

Mean Streets is problematic in this respect. Scorsese addresses the racism of his home community. Charlie develops a crush on Diane - a black stripper played by Jeannie Bell (TNT Jackson). He recognises the prejudice of those around him and calls it to question, even though it gives him sufficient pause to miss his moment with her. More problematic however is the portrayal of a gay character, which is a grotesque caricature. No doubt this was a character that you could find in downtown Manhattan in the 1960s, but even so, watching it today feels uncomfortable.


The film, if it is about anything, beyond Scorsese's world growing up that is, is about Charlie's attempt to reconcile his faith to the world that confronted him in his neighbourhood, friends and family. The opening lines of the film read, 'You don't make up for your sins in the church, you make up for them on the streets. The rest is all bullshit and you know it.' The film is a playing out of this thesis. Charlie wants to be a good Catholic; he knows he's a sinner and he knows that he has to pay for that sin - the question is what counts as meaningful penance.

It is no secret that the young Scorsese's alternate career was the priesthood. He was very drawn to the seminary. His subsequent films have returned explicitly to the problems of religion and redemption both explicit (Last Temptation, Kundun and his most recent, Silence) and implicit (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) - but here, in Mean Streets, do we see Scorsese's faith - his admiration for St. Francis, his belief in the possibility of salvation in the world.

Anyway, there is it. I love this film and hold Scorsese to be possibly the greatest director of the second half of the 20th century.

As a bonus - here is a Q&A Scorsese did on Mean Streets in 2011

Ten Albums That Impressed Me This Week (19/2)

Week ending 19th Feb 2017

Every week I listen to lots of albums - on average three or four a day. Once a week, roughly about this time (i.e. the weekend), I will note the ten albums that have impressed me the most. Usually, they will have impressed me positively; but not necessarily.

I may not make much commentary, if any. Although discussion in the comments is encouraged.

Doris Duke - I'm a Loser

Top notch Southern Soul. I'll never get tired of Swamp Dogg's production on the opener 'He's Gone'

John Cale - Fragments of a Rainy Season

Very different to the other live album I have of Cale ('Sabotage'); much more low key - just him and a piano. Intimate but I am not sure I prefer it...

The Kinks - Village Green Preservation Society

Dion - Dion

Come for the weird-ass version of Hendrix's 'Purple Haze', stay for the quality sixties troubadour-ing.

Abba - Voulez Vous

The last great Abba album and their most Disco.

Lloyd Cole & the Commotions - Mainstream

The Impressions - This is My Country

See my post on Curtis Mayfield! This is a great example of why Curtis is genius.

Tom Waits - The Heart of Saturday Night

Lovely, early Asylum era Waits. The title track is one my very favourites.

Grace Jones - Warm Leatherette

One day I will write a list of things to demonstrate why Grace Jones is amazing. In the mean time, we'll just have to admit to ourselves that a week in which I listen to a Grace Jones album is likely to be a week that she appears in a list like this.

Deaf School - 2nd Honeymoon

This is sort of silly, but irresistible.