Archive for October, 2012

Jim Jones Revue: The Savage Heart (Play It Again Sam)

Zen Mantra: How Many Padmes Hum? (Muzai records)


Jim Jones and his Revue offer no surprises, no charm offensive .. it’s the bare-bones rock’n’roll rampage of a band born with The Cramps and Bo Diddley playing at their birth,  and Iggy and Jerry Lee Lewis at the first birthday party.

It’s easy to describe them as pilfering, low-life reprobates trying to wake up the neighbourhood, and the band would appreciate those compliments. But the Revue’s no-nonsense rock’n’roll purity has had the Daily Telegraph headlining a feature, “Britain’s last rock’n’rollers?”. Radio won’t play them but word of mouth (not internet chat, but people actually talking to each other) has seen the not-so-young rockers with greased-back quiffs move up from the toilet circuit to proper venues.

The Savage Heart begins with a blast of piano a la Little Richard, and with it, It’s Gotta Be About Me, shakes, rattles and kicks ass with Jones on full throttle, sounding like Lemmy doing an impression of Tom Waits.

There’s more piano on Where Da Money Go?, which is strangely reminiscent of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals pseudo-gangster mockery just with more guitars. And drums. Needless to say there’s no room for electronics, and while it wasn’t recorded in two days in a dingy building (as their debut was) it still whiffs of 1950s attitude, 70s raw power and the proto-goth rock of the Birthday Party in the 80s. Rock on.

I take a double dose of How Many Padmes Hum? to distill my energies after Savage Heart. Zen Mantra are a low-key New Zealand act on the Auckland-based Muzai records label (slogan: Independent Fighting Spirit). From the band’s name and the album’s title you can probably guess that Zen Mantra are a little out-there.

While there is some outlandish to this Sam Perry-fronted outfit (a lot of “staring at the clouds”) the appeal is the gloriously softness and melodic temperature of half an hour of languid, easy-to-peel sounds, with songs like Cloudgazer garnering such terms as dreamy. It’s pop with a laidback feel, and the single La La La La has, as you might guess, plenty of hooks and harmonies. There’s plenty to like but equally the formula can become somewhat tiresome over an entire album.

More: http://muzairecords.com, and also check out Muzai’s Facebook page.

Read Full Post »

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros: Global a Go Go/ Streetcore (both Hellcat records)

Punks never die. After the movement dissolved – not too long after it kicked off – punks grabbed onto whatever was sizzling on the underground and took those sparks and made a roasting bonfire. Post-Clash Strummer took on some of the influences that were nurturing in the final days of the band: Latin rhythms, hip-hop and rockabilly and made some intriguing if largely unheard of records in the 1980s.

In 1999 he made a welcome comeback with The Mescaleros, with memorable appearances at festivals such as T in the Park and Move, and releasing Rock Art and the X-Ray Style that year and Global A Go-Go in 2001. Streetcore was released posthumously.

The magnus opus of the trio was Global A Go-Go from 2001 with, as the title would suggest, a worldwide overview. Notably, on Bhindi Bagee, Strummer meets a New Zealander on the high road of a London community, and is asked where he can get some mushy peas. A bemused Strummer replies “but we got balti, bhindi, strictly hindi, dall halal” and knocks off a long list of international dishes reflecting the diverse culinary tastes of today’s Britain.

Meanwhile, on the title track Strummer hails the universality of music: “Buddy Rich in Burundi/ Quadrophenia in Armenia/ Big Youth booming in Djkarta/ Nina Simone over Sierra Leone.”

Cool ‘N’ Out is a road trip across the States; Shaktar Donetsk reflects on eastern European migration to the west; and At The Border, Guy is a wonderful, seven-minute epic, that builds and builds with its reggae fusion. Apart from a rather pointless 18-minute Minstrel Boy that rounds off the album this is a magnificent effort from someone still sorely missed.

Streetcore saw Strummer go back to his rock and reggae roots. It’s a fine album which is remarkable given the album wasn’t completed before his untimely death. Most of the vocals are first takes and there are doubts over whether the cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, and Long Shadow – written for Johnny Cash – were meant to be included. Certainly the former doesn’t fit the album. Otherwise the quality is excellent and there appears to have been little need for wholesale pre-release changes. All In A Day and Arms Aloft are typical Strummer rabble-rousing efforts, Get Down Moses is Strummer using reggae magnificently and Burnin’ Streets is an effort worthy of any Clash album.

Both editions have extra tracks – just one in the case of Global a Go-Go (Bhindi Bagee live), but seven for Streetcore, all live takes of songs like the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop and Clash classics Armagideon Time and Junco Partner.

Hopefully, the first Mescaleros album and Strummer’s 80s efforts will be given the same remastering treatment soon, especially so for the older stuff which is now as rare as rocking horse manure.

Read Full Post »

Ultrasound: Play For Today (Fierce Panda)

It’s been a whopping 13 years since Ultrasound released their one and only platter. Thirteen years is a long time, a lot of acts have come and gone. Hell, even wars have broken and out and been solved.

Ultrasound had, if I recall vaguely, a charming debut, but one that I can’t refer to as it is in an attic the other side of the world. It had balls aplenty, but it felt like a record you could play to your own mother. One of my everlasting memories is a feature in the NME on how musicians should be allowed to remain on the dole as they were working up to something, with Andrew ‘Tiny’ Wood used as an example of someone who spent time signing on, but were ‘building’ their skills. Now the five-piece are back, but money is not the motivating factor, but a need to prove that they could have made an impact is.

It is somewhat fitting that the opening track is Welfare State, released in an era where the unemployed (whose numbers have risen largely because of the follies of bankers) are regarded as pariahs, on a level slightly below Middle Eastern bombers and child-snatchers. “We are the greasy, unwashed scum/ We are the paupers on the run/ We’ve never done a day’s work in our lives.” intones Wood, mimicking hundreds of right-wing, snooty tabloid headlines.

Gracefully, the song it an absolute belter, full of hooks, and their earmark patchwork of rock’n’roll and art-rock. Back in the late 90s, Ultrasound were ahead of their time, but 2012 is far more sympathetic to their cause. Twins is bursting with intensity, the chorus so good I feel the need to throw that sole Coldplay album in Porky’s collection into the bin, then ravish my wife’s ugly sister. Long Way Home is gloriously upbeat, as it purrs along like a Japanese car on the fastest highway in the country. These three more than mitigate for some of the lesser lights, such as Glitter Box that seems out of place on Play For Today.

Yip, the end of year best of lists are looking mighty fine, after a barren spell.

Read Full Post »

This is an article written for Walkley magazine examining the present situation of music media – and the challenges and opportunities of the future

Facing the music

by Craig Stephen

Like a spoilt child, music fans want more, more, more. But just because they can get everything when and where they want, it doesn’t always lead to a happy soul.

As with all other forms of media over the last decade, music journalism has been reacting to the digital age. But the reaction has often been more of a tantrum, with a lot of mess being made along the way.

The fans demand because they can. A music website can’t establish any semblance of a following if it doesn’t contain links to new or old music or tries to swing viewers away from YouTube.

Some of the more popular websites appear to be nothing more than a screaming match of graphics and multimedia; some of the less popular ones focus purely on the words. Some have their own face-to-face televised interviews. The competition is intense, but the quality is debatable. Meanwhile, many newspapers have devolved their coverage of music, relegating it to sidebars and frothy interviews.

Music journalism’s heyday is generally regarded as the ’70s and ’80s, when scribblers such as Nick Kent, Jon Savage and Charles Shaar Murray themselves were often the story. Some took as many drugs and slept with as many groupies as the bands did to live the rock’n’roll lifestyle, to really feel how it was to be a popstar – or at least that’s how the story went.

In the UK, music papers such as NME, Melody Maker and Sounds offered huge, in-depth features. In the US, Rolling Stone – established in 1967 – was an icon. In 1976 a 200-word live review could break a band – as Neil Spencer did with the Sex Pistols in NME.

Down Under, the selection in this era was less legendary – Rolling Stone had an Australian version, of course – but otherwise there were low-circulation, city-based publications such as RAM, Juice and Juke in Australia, and Rip It Up (which is still going) in New Zealand.

They tended to feature a lot of in-depth material and had a real connection to the artists. But while they were influential within the music industry, these magazines and fanzines were largely irrelevant to the bulk of music buyers, who found what they liked on the radio. They were, however, a launchpad for many writers. One of those, Bernard Zuel – now with The Sydney Morning Herald and one of just three full-time music writers for newspapers in Australia, he reckons – was a product of RAM. Although he views the music papers he worked on as being fairly insignificant, he does empathise with those who look back on the time as a productive one for music journalism.

“There is an element of ‘in my day things were better’ because the mags of the 1970s and ’80s allowed broader coverage and developed a strand of writers who learned their trade,” he notes. But he also points out that when he first joined the Herald in the mid-’80s, its music coverage was limited to “two small things in the back of the television guide”.

“There are pockets of quality, and not a lot of it,” he says of music journalism today, noting Robert Forster’s 1500-word column in The Monthly as an example of where good writing can prevail.

Veteran New Zealand freelance writer Graham Reid pinpoints the great era of rock journalism as being from 1975 to 1995, when writers had more opportunities and freedom of movement.

“You would see writers out with bands on the road, artists being interviewed when they didn’t have an album or tour to promote, etc, etc. There was far better access.

“These days you get ‘phoners’ with artists, which used to be about 30 minutes [and] now they are usually 15, and you have to ask yourself just how useful they are. They are just promo devices and the artists give the same interview each time.

“Quite often I feel I am not writing up an interview but merely transcribing.

“There is nowhere near as much give-and-take/conversation as there used to be. Artists just say their bit about the new album and that’s it.”

In terms of the current state of music journalism, two things stand out: the lack of depth in the print press and the fickleness, and fast flow, of the internet.

Reid is particularly scathing of the current attitude of the press towards features, having to drop his word count for articles on artists from 2500 words to, if he’s lucky, 800 words. Album reviews that would have once contextualised the artist, album and music now limit the writer to a stifling 100–250 words.

Clearly you can’t dissect 12 tracks and/or an hour or more of music within such perimeters. How on earth would the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, an album about the state of England in 1977, or the Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band be given a proper examination in today’s climate?

Reid believes the internet has been under-used in that regard, with a lot of online reviewers lacking such basic skills as being able to tell a story or spell correctly.

But while some sites lack articulate writing and deliver only graphics and images, there are also some good music journalism websites out there. Among them are Pitchfork and Mess+Noise, which I am delighted to see has, as I write, an article on why not all good music is limited to Sydney and Melbourne, and investigates what Adelaide has to offer.

The digital age has also brought with it a greater degree of freedom, allowing sites to focus on what they like, and for blogs to zoom in on particular acts or genres and give them a decent run.

As well, digital streaming means music journalists now have a quick, easy way of listening to new releases (although that may be on a laptop with tinny speakers and scrappy sound quality).

“There is a lot of music that is being heard by a lot of people without any major support behind it or money, and that is being promoted by online recommendations and alternative sources,” says Zuel.

And while the money-grabbing corporate labels have been buying up small labels to maximise their profits for decades, Zuel notes that new acts can now use digital technology to bypass such routes altogether. “Diversity is better now than it’s been for a long, long time,” he says.

This article first appeared in Walkley, the magazine for journalists in trade unions in Australia and New Zealand, in the July-August edition.

Thanks to Bernard Zuel and Graham Reid for their enormous help.




Read Full Post »

Alpine: A Is For Alpine (Ivy League)

Land Observations: Roman Roads IV-XI (mute)

Cave Painting: Votive Life (Third Rock)

The record label excitedly informs me that Alpine are “six friends from Melbourne”, which elicits the response ‘well, surely all bands are formed by friends’. At least the ones not created by a television talent quest.

So, friends they are, and that is nice, I hope they don’t end up the way many school buddies do, at each other’s throats after several years in cabin fever mode. The press release also describes Alpine as making “bold, twinkling, sophisticated pop music”, a method that has led to The Guardian newspaper opining that Alpine are “Hands down the best Aussie band we’ve heard  all year.”

That’s a statement that has to be quantified by asking what the opposition is, after all Australian music has few genuine success stories and lag behind considerably their Tasman neighbours. The Flying Nun label wasn’t formed in Melbourne or Sydney but in Dunedin, The Phoenix Foundation from Wellington, ad nauseum.

The description by the record label is spot on, Alpine do make sophisticated pop music, but I would argue against the term bold. A is For Alpine is ideal for a cocktail party but it would be a challenge to play this on permanent rotation. Phoebe Baker sounds eerily enchanting but it is a monotone voice fitting with the minimalist flow. A little bit of adventure would not have gone amiss.

A travel adventure is what Land Observations have on Roman Roads IV-XI. Composer James Brooks goes on an exploration of the road network that existed across Europe and into Africa and Asia during the Roman Empire. Each composition is “an attempt to respond to the history and geography of an individual road”: hence titles such as Via Flaminia and Aurelian Way. It’s entirely instrumental, and it feels like a travelogue. There are plenty of plinks, and a hefty number of plongs. and while it is minimalist to the max, there is a richness to this earthy work that gives it purety if not any commercial success whatsoever.

I listened to these three albums in order, so Cave Painting raise the temperature considerably by introducing guitars, but don’t get too excited just yet. These artists come from Brighton on the southern English coast, the breeding ground for a substantial number of indie bands over the years, few of them having left much of a mark. They develop the “expansive” melodica that has been nurtured over the years by Coldplay before the corporate cock proved too tempting, and most recently S.C.U.M. whose debut last year was much loved by Porky.

It has taken several listens to come to terms with this album, and it’s partially succeeded. At first it sounded one-dimensional: Adam Kane’s voice, as beautiful as it is, lacked passion, the lyrics had touches of a sixth-form poetry contest and the songs seem to have been created with an intention, a vision of a colossal sound rather than having come from the heart. A few listens confirms some of those criticisms but some are clearly ill-thought. There IS passion, a passion for the music they make, and several songs are majestic soundscapes, notably the monumental Gator, but it remains, after half a dozen spins, a difficult listen, with ideas regurgitated and the feeling that they tried just a bit too hard.

Read Full Post »

Bruce Foxton: Back In The Room (Basstone)

Foxton hasn’t quite had the breaks that’s been afforded to Paul Weller since The Jam was broken up by Weller in 1982.

One formed the Style Council and has had numerous excellent solo albums, the other was a member of Stiff Little Fingers in their comeback years, and formed From The Jam with fellow ex-Jam-mate rick Buckler, which came across as a cry of ‘hey we were in the band too’.

But Foxton was an integral part of The Jam and his edgy bass playing and electric movements on stage were crucial to the sound and vision of that band.

Back In The Room sees Foxton’s oft-fracticious relationship with Weller seemingly fully repaired as the legend appears on three tracks, and that Weller-Jam influence is fairly obvious, sometimes too transparently, but that is far from a fault. It means enchanting pop dongs like Number Six, the blues-driven verse-chorus-verse anthem Find My Way Home and the essence of Motown in Don’t Waste My Time.

Piano playing augments The Gaffa, a trip back to the days of rock’n’roll; there’s a couple of pleasant instrumentals while there’s a feeling of contendness on the breezy Drifting Dreams.

It may be an unfortunate appraisal of the state of new bands, or it may be that Porky is getting closer to the knacker’s yard, but a good percentage of the best albums being released in the 2010s are from artists who would have been forceably retired by the age of 23, in the 1960s.

Read Full Post »