Sunday, 17 September 2017

10 Albums From 1970

A while ago, a friend suggested a silly game on Facebook – I don’t know how it came to him – to name a favourite film for every year since you were born. It was fun and silly and wasted a good amount of time and spawned a good amount of discussion. Given how much I like a list, and given how much I like to talk about music even more than I like to talk about movies, I thought a similar game could be played with records.

Of course, choosing a single favourite is impossible and absurd. I set to the task with gusto and went year by year, noting every album I found interesting, that could possibly be a contender. In the end I had a list of just under a thousand albums covering 47 years of life. You do the math…

Anyway, I decided to whittle each year down to ten on the basis of what I enjoyed the most and what I felt that I would want people to listen to, if they hadn’t already checked this or that artist out. I will stress, therefore, these are not claimed to be the best albums of any given year, or even necessarily my favourites (they are liable to shift and change). But they are close to my favourites – at least they are right now.

I hope that you enjoy this ridiculous task as much as me, and I would love to know what albums you agree with, or disagree with, or would include instead.

Let’s begin with the year of my birth, 1970…

Funkadelic – Funkadelic

Holy cow, this is an incredible album and it never fails to make me happy. It was introduced to me in 1990 by a man called Frank. This is not the time to go into detail, but Frank was a seer when it comes to music. To say that he was ahead of the curve was an understatement, especially when we recall that there was no internet etc. Who knows where Frank is now, but I hope he is well. If I meet him, I will thank him for introducing me to this album.

In 1990 I had no idea what funk music was and given the variations within the genre it is forgivable to be uncertain, but this has only a faint family resemblance to the godfather, James Brown. It’s not even that close to what George Clinton’s various bands would become at the end of the decade (P-funk etc.). Instead it is a murky, swampy, acid-drenched smudge between soul, funk, rock and the blues. It’s not a million miles away from Gris-Gris era Dr. John, Electric Ladyland Hendrix or even the looser end of The Doors but with a massive dollop of Sly Stone thrown in.

Each track has a groove as deep as the Mariana Trench. When I listen I want to sing along, move, slap, rejoice in this bewildering, carnal, profane world. What is soul?, they sing – a joint wrapped in toilet paper, rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps, a hamhock in your cornflakes. Who knows? They don’t know either. But if I was to recommend one album from the year of my birth, this would be it.

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

I cannot remember when I first heard Sabbath. My mother had a tape copy of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. My uncle, a large scale provider of metal in my early teens, wasn’t too keen – he preferred NWOBHM; I can’t recall him ever sharing anything with me. I know that I bought a copy of Live at Last – I was probably around 13 – so they must have made an impression. But it wasn’t until my friend Ezzy loaned me a cassette copy of Paranoid in 1989 that I finally understood.

When the most boring song on an album is also the most famous single, not just of the album, but of your whole career, then there is a good chance that this album is something pretty special.

I encourage you to sit and listen to any single song on that album, and listen closely to the three principal instruments; drums, bass and guitar. The drums are pounding – not quite as heavy as John Bonham, but they provide the rhythmic bottom line. They, more than anything else – even Iommi’s heavy heavy riffs, underline the industrial factory tone that Sabbath said was the inspiration and imprint for the sound they were to create. They are sophisticated, switching the rhythms around, flipping from drum/snare/hi-hat to toms, mixing up the variations. The bass reveals Butler’s tradition in the jazz/R&B groups of his youth. Where heavy metal later became a vehicle for masturbatory guitarists, bass players like Geezer Bulter’s followed the Who’s John Entwistle in keeping very very busy. As soon as Butler is freed from service of the riff (as in Electric Funeral), he’s off and providing an endlessly fascinating bottom line that is always responding to Bill Ward’s drumming. And then there’s Tony Iommi – one of the greatest guitar players in all of rock and much like Butler and Ward under-rated even when he’s being praised. His riffs are legendary, and his solos do exactly what they need to do – and no more. Finally, on top of it all, there’s Ozzy. Never the greatest singer or lyricist, but coupled with such a backdrop we find that his limitations become strengths.

Any of the first four albums by Sabbath are worth a listen, but if I had to choose one – it would be this one.

Donny Hathaway – Everything is Everything

Donny Hathaway is one of the most tragic figures in 1970s soul. Classically trained, worked with everyone from Franklin to Mayfield to Motown and most famously Roberta Flack. However, he struggled with mental illness and committed suicide in 1979 cutting short an incredible career.

His albums have a richness of textures and structures that is uncommon in soul. He draws on classical, jazz, latin influences to create a much more layered music. Nonetheless, this does not suck the life out of the music – it’s as funky as Mayfield and has as much soul as Stevie – just check out the opening to the first track, Voices Inside – deep groove with the most uplifting horn arrangement.

The album is stacked full of monster tracks. I Believe To My Soul is blues rhythm, with Stevie Wonder flourishes, huge brass blasts – a chorus line that is somewhere between Abbey Road and Hey Joe. Unsurprisingly, this is written by Ray Charles but the arrangement is to die for. Sugar Lee is halfway between jazz and campfire riffing – all shouts and handclaps. Young, Gifted and Black – one of Nina Simone’s most famous tunes gets an extended gospel work-out.

The star of the show is probably Hathaway’s most famous: The Ghetto (everything is everything). It reflects Donny’s Latin influences most plainly and has the deepest groove; dangerous, uplifting. Cool as anything – just like Donny.

The Stooges – Fun House

Legendary second album from Iggy and the Ashton brothers. A move forward (backward?) from the John Cale produced debut with the avowed intention of capturing The Stooges as they were live. Ex-Kingsmen Paul Gallucci is brought in to record the unrecordable. Seven songs of brutality and violence, sheer unbridled rock’n’roll. If this doesn’t make you want to shout, move and break things, you’re already dead.

The three opening songs – Down on the Street, Loose and TV Eye – break down all defences. They are relentless, pushing through any reservations. Their power is their determined simplicity. There is nothing sophisticated here. Nothing. Just power – raw bloody power. Jack White describes this as ‘the greatest rock’n’roll record ever made’ and these three songs set out to prove it. More punk than punk – a hurricane of blistering riffs. Dirt is a seven minute grind. Psychedelic and anti-hippy. The summer of love was three years ago, baby. This is a come down set to music. Brooding, sexual – almost jazzy. It is primal energy slowed down to a dangerous hum.

Brian James of The Damned describes the opening of 1970 has ‘pure bloody mayhem’. He should know, The Damned’s cover version is almost as good and while it is close to as insane, it lacks the insanity of the original. Fun House and L.A. Blues finish the set with sustained brutishness. Fun House has a Detroit factory line for a rhythm and beats the listener into submission, whereas L.A. Blues abandons even rhythm – it is just noise and madness…

Curtis Mayfield – Curtis

If Curtis Mayfield had decided to call it a day in 1970, if he had decided to quit the music business and become a gardener or a goat-herder or something, he would have already earned his place in the pantheon. During the 1960s, he had formed one of the best soul vocal groups, The Impressions, written some of the greatest songs, given an invaluable leg up to a multitude of musicians and formed his own record label, Curtom. But in 1970, Curtis had left his group and gone solo, releasing the first in a series of groundbreaking albums.

What made these records so important was a vital combination of warmth and humanity, social consciousness, and first rate musicianship. We could debate whether this is his finest record, or Roots or Superfly – it doesn’t matter. This is a masterpiece. Any album that opens with (Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go is going to be something special. Lyrically it is devastating – shocking even – in unrelenting condemnation. But the instrumentation; distorted bass, percussion, wah-wah guitar, great horn lines and psychedelic flourishes. Nothing can stand in its way.

And the album does not let up. Perennial classic Move On Up is track 5, back where things might be forgiven for being a little relaxed after such a strong start. But no, Mayfield is not giving up. Nothing compares to this.

The Velvet Underground – Loaded

You could argue that there were two Velvet Undergrounds. There was the envelope pushing Velvets with Cale and Sister Ray. And then there is the other Velvets, the one with the songs. An interesting debate could be had which of these two incarnations were better or more influential. I love them both, so I am not going to get embroiled, but this album – the 4th and final – is definitely of the second type.

Loaded has some of the best songs that Lou Reed ever wrote. I don’t think that it is the most progressive or intense. Reed had largely abandoned the album in exhaustion and so Doug Yule had finished the album off in his absence. All the same, Reed’s song writing was on an incredible high. Obviously we have the classic Sweet Jane, but alongside it there’s Rock’n’Roll, Oh Sweet Nuthin’, I Found a Reason. None of these are Reed’s most famous songs, but all of them could have been. One of my favourite songs full stop is New Age. It is a fascinating story within the song, but it is also heartbreakingly beautiful in its own way.

Of all the albums listed here, I probably have the least to say about this one. I think it just has the best songs.

Syl Johnson – Is It Because I Am Black?

Man, Syl Johnson was unlucky! He worked hard in the 60s, making a name for himself. He established Twinight Records, produced some great artists, and a series of his own knockout albums, including this one. In 1973 he signed to Willie Mitchell’s Hi-Records, expecting to be the label’s next big thing. Just as Al Green took off…

Consequently, he remains in the second tier of Soul’s heroes, unknown to the general public. This is a massive injustice as he was awesome. He produced a few incredible albums on both his own label and Hi, but you could make a strong case for this being the best. It contains the best of both Chicago and Memphis. The song-craft and the arrangements have a Northern quality, but the pace and the mood is Southern.

The album is framed between two longer workouts. The opening title track is a deep lament, which must have reflected a reality for black men in the US and beyond that was immediately recognisable. The lyric is heartbreaking but the groove is soulful; marrying the sadness of the blues with the persistent optimism in spite of it all of deep soul. The album closes with Right On, a scrappy funky strut. It answers the former track with a determination and call for togetherness. Between these two tracks are eight incredible late-60s, early 70s deep soul cuts from the cover of Come Together to the gorgeous Everybody Needs Love. Awesome.

Bill Fay – Bill Fay

Where to start with this oddity? Bill Fay was a British singer-songwriter in the late 60s who was pitched in a sort of Dylan mould. Except he wasn’t. There was a single Some Good Advice released in ’67, that had a Dylan-ish quality, but by the time we reach this album, it was a real stretch. British psychedelia had come and gone, but something lingered on so Fay’s curious, provincial poem-songs were matched by the lushest, most expansive baroque orchestral arrangements – huge amounts of brass and woodwind. The overall effect is beautiful if jarring. It is an album that is peculiar if intriguing on first listen, but with return visits it is eternally rewarding. Over the years I have played it for a few people. Often the first response is mild, not unpleasant, bemusement. But this typically gives way to an openness to Fay’s weird vision.

Garden Song opens without much pomp, but at the end of the first verse the listener is swept up in a vivid swoop of strings that lists the song up and whisks it away somewhere else. Narrow Way is the most baroque. We Have Laid Here is driving forward, the most rock of the album, but… It is followed by Sing Us One of Your Songs May, a haunting conversation that could have been the 1940s. Just a simple, repetitive poem placed above a heavily reverbed piano.

This album, like so many, dropped off the radar almost as soon as it was released (Fay did release a follow up in ’71). However, it is one of the most prominent of the revivals of ‘lost’ albums and has since been championed by David Tibet and Jeff Tweedy.

Isaac Hayes – To Be Continued…

The title of this album should give a pretty clear sense of itself. It follows very much in the vein of its two immediate predecessors, Hot Buttered Soul and The Isaac Hayes Movement. While the first of those remains my favourite, this is a close second. Again we have a series of lushly orchestrated, lengthy adaptations of a series of classic song songs; You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling by Mann/Weil, Runnin’ Out of Fools by Kenny Rogers, Our Day Will Come popularised by Ruby and the Romantics. But the pick is Bacharach & David’s The Look of Love. Hayes extends it to 11 minutes of seductive glory. You’d think that at that length it might overstay its welcome. No – Hayes by this point is a master at wringing every drop of drama and emotion out of these 2 and a half minute songs. Not a moment is wasted. Alongside the other master, Barry White, Isaac Hayes is genius at marrying lush, sophisticated arrangements to close, sweaty, intimate grooves.

Aretha Franklin – Spirit in the Dark

For my final selection, I chose this often overlooked Aretha Franklin classic. It’s not surprising that it is overlooked, it almost appears like it is overlooking itself. The cover is so subdued – Aretha is slipping into the darkness of the background. The music, on the face of it, is also subdued. There is little of the high octane push of ‘Think’, ‘Save Me’, or even the overt bombast of ‘Natural Woman’. The mood here is restrained. Even the lead track, the excellent Don’t Play That Song, feels like its hold back. Aretha in ’67 might have caused it to self-combust, but here it is cooler. This is not to say muted or squashed, but that the emotion is under the surface, deeper.

And it flows. The feel of the album is more church, more blues. There is a nice mix of groove and rhythm, call and response. The album moves like the tide – pushing and pulling you along. The title track mixes the sacred and the profane – which spirit does she mean? This ambiguity is at the heart of much of Aretha’s music, I think, but here it is even less obvious than usual, especially when it hits a Gospel breakdown in the second half.

It would be fair to say that this is not the most striking Aretha album, but it is solid and deserving of our attention. It is a traditional album but that isn’t any bad thing.

All the same, people often talk about soul music like it’s a 60s thing, but if one thing should be taken from this list, it’s that the genre was just getting started.

Other Albums considered…

I listened to a bunch of albums in writing this. (It’s always a massive pleasure.) While I had to make a selection and thus exclude a bunch of records, I wanted to just give a shout to some that might, on a different day, have made the list.

John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band offers a fascinating, if emotionally-damaged, snapshot of the ex-Beatle in a stripped back fashion. Steeleye Span – Hark! The Village Wait is a fascinating debut. It is harder and more vital in many respects than Fairport and yet so deep into traditional English and Irish folk. Nick Drake – Bryter Later is another selection of deeply beautiful songs with a fuller, more dynamic arrangement than his debut. Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water is perhaps over-wrought, over sweet, but Paul Simon’s songwriting and Garfunkel’s singing is never not incredible. Perhaps the album that I am saddest about missing out is Elton John – Tumbleweed Connection. If you ever needed a reason, or a starting point, for reassessing Elton John, here it is. There are no well known singles here. There is no flash or pizzazz. It is simply 10 excellent songs, performed by top-knotch musicians. 

Onwards into 1971 now...

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