Reviews: Bordellos, JD Wilkes, A Year in the Country, Residents, Hunter-Ronson, Beautify Junkyards, Danny Adler, Solid Space, Rowan Amber Mill, Grandpa Egg, Billie Joe Spears

reviews by Dave Thompson

The Bordellos

Faves (download)

(Now Music/Bandcamp)

You’re not doing anything useful right now; you should go visit the Bordellos’ Bandcamp page.  Close to thirty albums, EPs, singles, whatever, are piled up for your perusal, including the just- released Underground Tape Volume Ten and a fab festive collection.  Play it in July, confuse the neighbors,

But what you won’t find is this, a twelve track best of that inaugurates the Now Music label, doesn’t cost a bean, and is probably the closest you’re ever going to get to a bite-sized digest of their rambunctious career.

For they are rambunctious, even across the slow, almost balladic sextet of songs that opens this aptly-titled collection – and whose mood is soundly crushed and crumpled by the band’s dirty-washing wade through Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” modeled upon the Yardbirds, if they hadn’t bathed for a week.

Which is, of course, one of the joys of the Bordellos.  All the old canards about “if they moved in next to you, your lawn would die”… “they grow their hair long so they can’t hear the noise they make”… and “sorry, but guitar groups are out” all fit their portrait (stylistically if not visually), and while we could argue all night over whether or not this really is the very best of the band (what, no “The Plague”?  No Gary Glitter or David Cameron, no… the list is as long as their discography), we do get “Arthur Lowe” and “Crushed at Christmas,” the glorious “Sun Storm,” and a staggering (literally) cover of the Cookies’ “I Never Dreamed.”

Together with some of the most potent, and sometimes poignant lyrics being written today.  Which means, even if you think one album’s worth of Bordellos will do you, you’ll soon be gathering up the rest.

 

JD Wilkes

Fire Dream (CD)

(Big Legal Mess)

Any album that kicks off with what sounds like “The Alabama Song,” as played by the cast of Disney’s The Skeleton Dance, has to have a lot going for it.  Especially when it keeps it up for the rest of the show.

The short explanation is, Fire Dream is the first solo album by the light behind Th’ Legendary Shack Shaker and the Dirt Daubers, with accompaniment from sundry Squirrel Nut Zippers and Drive By Truckers.

The longer one is spread across an album born and bred within its maker’s own idiosyncratic vision of Americana, fed through blues and bluegrass, country and cornball; a deep fried Tom Waits reading Tales from the Crypt strips to Gid Tanner’s Skillet-lickers, in a world of hoboes, hidey holes, outlaws and skulls.

Lascivious fiddles keening coy through an Appalachian hoedown, Dr John at the medicine show, swamp snakes, moonshine and three-headed lambs.   And all so delightfully, deliciously demented that, occasionally, it’s difficult to believe anyone actually made up their mind to record this album.  It sounds more like something that’s born on the wind, the ghost of a burned out vaudeville theater replaying its greatest performances at midnight.  All the performances, all at once.

Frantic fun fueled by a refusal to take its musicology seriously; an awareness that when you step away from the furrowed brow of the specialist scholars, roots is all about kicking everything into the air, and not giving a hoot where it lands.  Fire Dreams hoots a lot.  And hollers and howls and hops about, too.

 

A Year in the Country

All the Merry Year Round (CD/download)

(A Year in the Country)

The last of A Year in the Country’s 2017 prolusions… its Christmas album, perhaps, although even the briefest exposure to the canon will disavow you of that notion.  For further details of AYITC’s mission, visit the website; for now, suffice to say… as “Tradition and Modernity” drifts softly through the speakers, sounding for all the world like Tangerine Dream just remembered why they were once so awesome… the catalog-to-date ranks high within that still unnamed cluster of acts for whom “wyrd folk,” “hauntology,” “psychogeography” and “wow, that’s weird – I love it” are all apt and oft-used terms.

Regular listeners, of course, will know what to expect.  Rounding up contributions from United Bible Studies (a disquieting electronic madrigal), the Hare and the Moon (spectral a capella that only gradually bleeds through further atmosphere), Sproatly Smith (the soundtrack to your favorite MR James story) and more, All the Merry Year Round is an exploration of ancient folklore and tradition as it blends with modern culture, even as that culture gives rise to traditions of its own – that black and white TV show you saw once when you were tiny, and has remained with you ever since, growing in the retelling, improving with age.  Maybe if you saw it now, it would be rubbish.  And maybe you wouldn’t care.

A dozen tracks err on the side of otherworldly, eerie effects and skewed affectations that make this the perfect companion for the longest winter nights.  Or even, one month past Yule, the shorter ones.  Perhaps Chetwynd Haze’s closing “The Seance” sounds much the same as you expected it to, but that does not detract from its majesty, nor from its brain-charring denouement.

And that is (at least one of) the beauties of  A Year in the Country.  Like an book of ghost stories, or a box set of sixties Hammer movies, you know what to expect before you’ve even got it home.  It’s the form that knowledge takes that matters here, and perhaps more than any other enterprise of its ilk, A Year in the Country know exactly how to twist your anticipation.

The album’s called All the Merry Year Round.  And that’s when you should listen to it.

 

Danny Adler

Bit of Beatles (CD)

(Roogalator Ltd/Ace Records)

Tributes to the Beatles are a worrying, if not grisly,  proposition.  What could possibly be left to say about them, do to them, or wear while you’re dancing on their graves that has not been said, done or worn before?

Well, you could reimagine their rebirth as a lurching, lascivious blues band, positing an alternate universe in which it was the Stones and the Pretty Things who were off on the Merseybeat train, while the boys that would be Beatles slaved away in west London pubs, standing in for Alexis Korner, thundering through the Chicago riff book and only slowly feeling it migrate into original compositions.

The ghosts of the British sixties naturally attend this album.  But it’s Giorgio Gomelski, Dick Rowe and Cyril Davies who loom the loudest over the proceedings.  “Love Me Do,” “The Word,” “When I Get Home,” “Every Little Thing” – the songs themselves are scarcely the most frequently covered Beatles compositions, and still Adler and band utterly divorce them from what you might be expecting.

Put it this way – anyone who can make “Good Morning Good Morning” sound like the Butterfield Blues Band has to have something going for them, a point which the jagged crunch of “Rain” only amplifies.

And then there’s the three songs which the Beatles had nothing to do with, but which merge exquisitely with the mood that pounds through the rest of the set, but most notably a superbly laid back “I’m Only Sleeping,” and a “There’s a Place” which not only takes you back to the pub, but also offers a glimpse of what those bands might have sounded like when they weren’t trying to raise the blood pressure.  It’s… odd.

So, a Beatles tribute that barely acknowledges the Beatles’ existence, and certainly ignores their own attempts to make us tap our toes to the music.  The anti-Rutles, if you will.  Or maybe just a lesson in how sweetly the past can be rewritten.  Either way, it wipes the floor with Sgt Pepper.

 

Ian Hunter featuring Mick Ronson

Live at Rockpalast (CD, DVD)

(MIG Music)

Hunter-Ronson’s 1979-80 union is, sensibly, widely regarded as a peak in both men’s careers – surprisingly, in some ways, because neither had set the world alight in the years since their last pairing (for Hunter’s 1975 solo debut and tour).  But inevitably, too, because as much as any of their past work with nameless others, the Hunter-Ronson team up was a marriage made in wherever great marriages ought to be made.

You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic was the album that ignited their latest tour, and the Welcome to the Club double was the inevitable souvenir of the shows that followed.  Other odds and ends have turned up too, in the near-forty years since the shows, most notably aboard Hunter’s thirty-disc box set a couple of years back.

Their Rockpalast showing, however, was always something special, retaining much the same repertoire as Welcome to the Club, but of course adding terrific visuals to the show – and, given the fact that the band had so much more experience under their belt by this time, tighter performances, too.

The opening sequence of “FBI” and “Once Bitten Twice Shy” is breathtaking; the closing pairing of the slowed-down “Dudes” and the stately “Slaughter on 10th Avenue”  is lump-in-the-throat time; and almost eight lurching funk-filled minutes of “Bastard” are positively Brobdingnagian.

Of course it was the eighties, so DVD viewers do suffer a little from the backing band’s “look ma, I’m a star” posturing and gurning.  But Hunter and Ronson themselves are flawless, true wizards, true stars, true showmen.

 

Beautify Junkyards

The Invisible World (CD/vinyl/download)

(Ghost Box)

Two years and more have passed since Beautify Junkyards last passed this way, with the superlative The Beast Shouted Love.  Well, they’re back with their third album and a union with Ghost Box that is both initially startling (the label is scarcely renowned for its attention to songs) and blindingly obvious.

The label’s catalog has long been a touchstone in the Junkyards’ own sonic assemblage, and though The Invisible World is still a long way from We Are All Pan’s People or Seance at Hobb’s End, whatever the threads that do bind the Ghost Box family may be, their embrace is effortless here.

Comparisons to Broadcast will doubtless fly, too, and they may be justified.  Most of all, though, The Invisible World is an inexorable step forward from The Beast…, just as that so clearly built on its predecessor.  Indeed, Beautify Junkyards’ entire career-so-far has been forged upon a  relentless journey through the darker hinterlands of what might once have passed for eerie psychedelia, but is now wholly out on its own, somewhere between the house at the end of the lane, and the mists that envelop the churchyard.

No need to play favorites with its contents; “Ghost Dance,” “May Day Eve,” “Echo Chamber,” “Golden Apples of the Sun,” the wash of electronics that both compliments and distorts the band’s own internal components (English acid, Brazilian Tropicalia, German Kosmiche)…  invisible or not, there is a world of impression and imagination to be scoured from these grooves.  And that stunning sleeve design is only the beginning.

 

Solid Space

Space Museum (vinyl)

(Dark Entries)

In 1980, Dan Goldstein (keyboards, vocals) and Matthew ‘Maf’ Vosburgh (guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals) were a couple of north London schoolfriends stepping out on their own following the demise of their last band, Exhibit A.  Still sixteen when they formed Solid Space, their early experiments with guitar, Casio and drum machine took a while to percolate but, by 1982, Space Museum was complete.

Released, if that is the word, on home-made cassettes alone, but readily finding its way through the DIY electronica underground, Space Museum – both then and, in remastered form, now – is very much a child of its sci-fi time.  The cover art photocopies a still from a late sixties Doctor Who, the Cybermen sneaking up on Zoe; Spectrum is Green “samples” (if that is the word) Captain Scarlet; and other mutterings and mumblings will repay in-depth listening, too.

Primitive, raw and unabashedly simplistic, but littered with melody and riffs as well (“The Guests” is almost danceable), Space Museum owes all and nothing to other albums of its ilk and age, that glorious period when the likes of Gary Numan and Ultravox were leading electronic music to the top of the chart, but the real ambition and success was taking place so far below the radar that its triumphs are still being discovered today.

This is one of those albums that might well have been completely forgotten had Dark Entries not stepped in to reissue it, and it’s probably not that well-remembered even now.  But a few songs in its company is like getting into bed with a bagful of ear worms.

 

Rowan Amber Mill

Harvest the Ears – Cuts from the Folk Horror Archive Volume One

(Bandcamp)

The wait for a new Rowan Amber masterpiece goes on, but they surface regardless, aboard one of the most sharply titled albums of recent years, and an eight track kind-of-best-of that looks back over a decade of milling and will certainly leave you gasping for more.

The opening cut sets the scene. Taken from the ever-spellbinding The Book of the Lost CD, it offers an extended version of that collection’s introduction, a grandiose movie-trailer style warning of what lies within.  Elsewhere, too, the Mill adheres strongly to the “folk horror” theme, but only in as much as it demonstrates just how far flung the genre’s parameters are.  “Separations” is medieval in mood, the kind of melody you can imagine Henry VIII demanding to hear as he comes down from his latest banquet; but “The Witch Twists the Pins” is itself pinned and twisted, corncrake chant and nursery rhyme nasty.

And so on through a collection that shifts from a hymn to Welsh goddess Blodeuwedd, to agitated electronica wed to mantric piano; and on to “The Call of the Black Meadow,” an eight minute collage of cues, FX and spectral whispers drawn from the video that the Mill created for the launch of author Chris Lambert’s Tales of the Black Meadow project – itself among the most satisfying of all the legends that have grown out of the modern folk horror environment.

A new Rowan Amber Mill album is, we are assured, in the pipeline.  If you’ve missed the old ones, however, or simply need to gather up some remarkable loose ends, the harvest awaits and your ears will thank you.

 

The Residents

Meet The Residents (2CD)

Present The Third Reich ’n Roll (2CD)

(Cherry Red)

Among those of us who spend their days dreaming of such monstrosities, the on-coming Residents remastering series ranks among the most eagerly anticipated reissue campaigns of recent years – all the more so after the box set last year opened our eyes to the kind of material that has been hidden from view for so long.

Lovingly annotated and smartly digipackaged, the opening salvo in the sequence does everything you’d hope – smartly remastered copies of the band’s first two releases (as opposed to their first two albums), from way back when we were younger, younger than today, together with what the eyeballs like to describe as “ephemera.”  Which translates to a disc and a half per album filled with out-takes, alternates, singles, and stuff.

It’s not all period-perfect. Among the bonus tracks affixed to Meet the Residents, we find both the  original 1974 mono mix, and its stereo counterpart from three years later, the “bonus” aspect of the affair, of course, depending upon which version of the album you first stumbled across.  The Santa Dog EP, and oddments that range from studio effects to fully realized performances complete that set.

Skipping its then-unavailable Not Available successor, the Residents’ third album, Third Reich…, is appended with the near-hit dismanteling of “Satisfaction,” plus the legendary “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life,” which took the mangled ghosts of past pop that made up the main LP, and applied them specifically to the Beatles.

A vocal version of the instrumental “Flying” follows, alongside – deep breath, thirty minutes preserving the band’s first live appearance since 1972, a rehearsal from 1982, a remix from 1992, a DVD mix and a six minute out-takes reel that makes up in madness what it lacks in fidelity.

The popular jury remains out on the Residents.  True, we are unlikely ever to find them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the Joe Meek and the Shangri-Las aren’t in there either, so clearly the eyeballs are in better company than if they’d actually been inducted.  Likewise, and “Satisfaction” notwithstanding, they’ve scarcely gone out of their way to court public approval.

Rather, they’re the kind of band that hides in the bushes that fringe a lonely country lane, making strange rustling sounds as people walk on by, and leaving it up to them whether or not to investigate.  Do so, and you’ve got a busy time approaching, as the reissues start piling up (Fingerprince and Duck Stab/Buster & Glen will be here in March).  Resist the temptation, and you’ll never know what you’re missing.

 

Grandpa Egg

Underneath the Willow Tree

(Nursing Home Records)

Third disc time for Ohio’s Egg, and an ambitious two CD set that we might once have termed a “concept album,” but which Grandpa prefers, sensibly, to call a “storybook album.” a In either case, its a twenty-three song fable that begins with a suicide, and a box full of letters that find their way to Nicholas, a subsequent occupant of the unlucky Joe’s bedroom.  And it is brilliant.

One sequence of songs tells Nicholas’s tale, the other traces Joe’s decline through his letters. But all are united by the Egg’s gift for melody, eye for arrangements and artful approach to storytelling, as they come together across an album that might seem to demand you pay a certain amount of attention, but which rapidly (third or fourth play tops) simply takes on a life of its own.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment, winded only by the continued insistence to describe Grandpa Egg as a psych-folk outfit – because if you wander in expecting that (and let’s face it, 2014’s Praying Mantis would certainly agree with that diagnosis), you’re in for a surprise.  Underneath the Willow Tree is built primarily around largely acoustic homespun melody, it is true.  And the frailty of the vocals, so in keeping with the story, do mask a gorgeous, melancholic  complexity.

But the willow’s closest relations are not so easy to pin down; so much so that it’s really not worth trying.  Rather, accept the fact that it’s 2018 and you’re sitting listening to a brand new concept album without a single Mellotron in sight.  You’re sucked into the story and the tunes are stuck in your head. And that’s all you need to know.

 

Billie Jo Spears

We Just Came Apart at the Dreams (CD)

(Angel Air)

Recorded in London (but completed in Nashville) in 1982, We Just Came Apart at the Dreams saw but a fleeting vinyl lifetime some thirty-five years ago.  This, then, is its first appearance since then, and it’s difficult to see why it has remained obscure for so long.  Particularly as Billie Joe was still scoring hits as recently as two years before, and would do so again a couple of years later.

Ah, we’ll get to that in a moment.

It’s a terrific album. The Spears voice is as alluring, powerful and expressive as it ever was, and her choice of material is faultless, too. It’s great hearing BJS tear through Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and a brilliantly revved up version of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” – in and out in under two minutes.  BRodney Crowell and Mark Knopfler show up in the writing credits too, with the latter’s “Settin’ Me Up” an opportunity for Spears and band to really kick some cans around.

But circumstance was less conducive than it might have been.  Spears both recorded the album in London and in part relied on local talent for accompaniment.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, and in many ways the disconnect from the US country scene is one reason why We Just Came Apart… sounds so fresh today.

Unfortunately, it also ensured that America wasn’t interested, while a more-minor-than-most UK record label (Premier) just doesn’t appear to have been equipped to give the album the attention it deserved.  It vanished, Spears returned to her American career, and three and a half decades later, even fans will probably be hearing this for the first time.  Tell them it was worth the wait.

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