Reviews: Bordellos, Lionel Bart, Unicorn, Brinsley Schwarz, Us and Them, Steve Hackett, Judge Smith, Jah Wobble, Moloko+, Cary Grace, Mark & the Clouds

1 bordellosThe Bordellos

Underground Tape Volume 5

(Bandcamp – free download)

There’s two ways of looking at the Bordellos.  Either they are the most exhilarating noise your garage has made since the days when you were doing useful things in there yourself… or they are the tightly wrought revenge that we’ve been wanting to exact on the music industry since – oooh, I don’t know when.

Either way, their guerrilla assault upon the bastions of all that is deemed tasteful and correct continues with four further songs of dislocation and delight, pivoting this time around positively the nastiest “I’m a Man” you’ve heard since a Yardbirds rehearsal was bootlegged by a distant passer-by and released on a scratched up cylinder.  Even on low volume at two in the morning, it dislodges the brickwork and gums up the pipes, and is, therefore, the most crucial slab of rock’n’roll released this side of the calendar.

The remainder of the EP is somewhat more sedate, although where the Bordellos are concerned, that’s a relative term… meaning, sedating your relatives is still the best option if you want to listen undisturbed.   “Temperature Drop” is a down tempo love song, cracked voice and organ to match, and is oddly reminiscent of a New Order demo being haunted by Ivor Cutler; “Autumn Grey” is as overcast and redolent as its title demands it be, and feels like the entire first Lou Reed album, fed through an old car radio; and, finally, the percussive “Sun Storm” is like an eighties shoegazing anthem, as played by a band with no shoes.

In other words, it’s business-as-usual from perhaps the only functioning band in the universe who didn’t simply read the rock’n’roll rule book, they then scrawled rude drawings in crayon in all of the margins, while finding inventive new ways to detune their guitars.  Forget lo-fi, the Bordellos have perfected no-fi-at-all, and their entire back catalog should be on a perpetual loop on every radio in the world.

 

2 lionelvarious artists 

Consider Yourself! – The Highs of Lionel Bart

(El Records/Cherry Red – 5CD box set)

Fings, as the great man wrote, ain’t wot they used to be.  Musicals today are… well, they’re not really musicals at all, are they?  Just a bunch of drab songs ham-fistedly driving a dismal plot towards its predictable denouement, with barely one of them worth remembering once you’ve heard the first lines.

Whereas… say what you will about the golden age of the genre, but the best of them (and there was a lot) were wall-to-wall earworms.  Including the title song to this box, a five CD round-up devoted to the genius of Lionel Bart.  The man who took British theater by the scruff of the neck and made it sing its socks off.

A full recounting of Bart’s entire ouvre would devour far more discs than this.  But neatly clamshelled into a box, Consider Yourself rounds up cast recordings, movie soundtracks and odd singles and spin-offs aliketo present a genuinely adorable portrait of Bart, from The Duke Wore Jeans and Tommy the Toreador, starring the newly-emergent Tommy Steele; a couple of cuts from Cliff Richard’s first movie; on through two full recountings of Oliver!, including the legendary 1962 production that featured the young Steve Marriott as the Artful Dodger (plus highlights from the Alma Cogan-fired ’61 version); and on through Lock Up Your Daughters and Blitz; For Bart’s Sake and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be, of course.

All five discs reproduce the relevant LP sleeves, all five are additionally laden with “bonus tracks” featuring further relevant odds and ends – a crash course in both the birth of British rock’n’roll, which Bart so magnificently mid-wifed, and its gradual shift into the light entertainment which itself lies at the heart of almost every truly British pop form since then.

But it’s the musicals that dominate, and so they should.  Oliver! should need no introduction to anyone… or, if it does, a chorus of “Food, Glorious Food,” “Reviewing the Situation” or “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” will quickly do the job.  And the individual performances are stellar – Cogan’s “As Long as He Needs Me” rates among her finest recordings; and the adolescent Steve Marriott is already recognizable as he duels Joyce Blair across “I’d Do Anything.”

Oliver! is Bart’s Behemoth, by virtue of the movie that followed; the highlights of the other shows are less a part of the furniture today, but the jewels are just as richly distributed, be it Sid James and Marion Ryan duetting on “Cop a Bit of Pride” (from Fings…), Hy Hazell’s “When Does the Ravishing Begin?” (from Lock Up…) and so on and so forth, across one of the most insanely enjoyable singalong box sets to have passed this way in many a year.

So consider yourself… sold.  You need this box.

 

3 us and themUs and Them

“When I Was Walking”/“Green Couch”

(Mega Dodo – 45)

It’s no secret that Us and Them are heir to so many Anglo folk thrones that the very fact that they’re Swedish feels like an act of outright subversion.  Nobody else has taken the likes of Sandy Denny, Pink Floyd and the Wicker Man to the heights that Anders Håkansson and Britt Rönnholm have dared raise them, and while we impatiently await the duo’s next album, the latest volume of the Mega Dodo Singles Club unfurls a green vinyl glimpse into what they’ve done lately.

Two new songs echo the last album’s reliance on self-composed material, and – despite the plaudits that their covers richly merit – it’s through their own pens that we see Us and Them at their unimpeachable best.

“Folky” in as much as that’s the vein through which they flow most freely, but guileless in the ease with which they step beyond that, they conjure whispered symphonics and back-of-the-mind remembrances, the taste of summer days and the touch of remembered woodland, over which Rönnholm’s voice floats with soul-snagging beauty.  And then nags you with such fearless hooks and chorus lines (“Green Couch” has a fade to die for) that you never want to sleep again.

 

4 Requiem-Judge-Smith-CD-CoverJudge Smith with the Crouch End Festival Chorus and Nigel Richards

Requiem Mass

(Masters of Art – CD)

Anyone with an eye for the antiquities of Van Der Graaf Generator will know Judge Smith’s name; songwriter and drummer in the band’s earliest incarnation, he departed when he realized the band really didn’t need help in either department.

“I was just starting out as a songwriter and finding my feet,” he tells Spin Cycle.  “I couldn’t sing that well at the time and Peter [Hammill] didn’t need me as a songwriting partner.  Also, they were all good musicians and I was a very bad drummer.  In fact, it was me who insisted they get a proper one, thus doing myself out of a job.”

Or forcing himself to find another one – which he did, and continues to do, across a long stream of solo albums and projects that add up to one of the most startlingly idiosyncratic discographies of the past forty years; and which has just taken another major leap with Requiem Mass, a piece that Smith wrote back in 1974, but which he has only now got around to recording.

“It’s a big piece…,” he explains.  “It’s only half an hour long, but it requires a large choir, a four piece guitar band, four trumpets, four trombones, percussion and a solo singer, not me… a fine-voiced singer.  I went to the world of musical theater to get my soloist which I thought was a good radical solution, and I got Nigel Richards, who’s been a phantom in Phantom of the Opera in the West End, and he did a wonderful job.  Just that lovely interface, – not classical but not rock’n’roll, either.”

The Crouch End chorus, too, has rock kudos, courtesy of its involvement with Ray Davies, but the Requiem itself moves in other directions entirely, a solid piece of chorale music, exquisitely toned in the mood of what we lazily call “classical music” (as if a single genre could ever sum up 300+ years of creativity), but neither locked into what we might “expect” from such a description, nor willfully flinging those expectations aside, even when the guitars kick in.

Quite simply, it is beautiful, a soaring, moving, but most of all thrilling performance whose sole true relative in rock history is the musical-within-a-musical presented by Jim Maclaine in the movie Stardust.  Which, intriguingly coincidentally, was also written in 1974.

There must have been something in the water.

 

5 molokoMoloko+

“Can’t Wait Til Sunday”/“Never Know What You’ve Got”

(Fruits de Mer/Friends of the Fish – 45)

Something of an unexpected treasure here, as Fruits de Mer abandon their customary dalliance with psych and prog, and leap headfirst into that rather glorious five minutes at the beginning of the nineties when it looked like pop songs were coming back into fashion.  And so they were, although Britpop was still a few years away, so anyone trying their hand at it now was just a shade too early.

As Moloko+ could probably tell you.

No matter.  (And no relation, either, to the mid-80s German dark wave band of the same name.)  A paucity of action at the time did not disguise either the greatness of their songs, or their timelessness.. this 45, pulling two songs from the band’s second demo tape, captures everything that everyone loved at the time, from the jangling guitars to the glorious harmonies, punchy power pop that would have looked great spinning on a Sarah single, and looks even better here.  In a world where the La’s are still beloved by all, Moloko+ are double-plus brilliant.

 

6 uffculmeCary Grace

The Uffculme Variations

(Door 13 Music – CD)

Recorded live at Kozfest 2016, this seven track/one hour collection captures the remarkable Ms Grace being… well, remarkable.  Humming synthesizers washed behind that fabulous voice; atmospheres that drift, drone and drown around the contributions of both her regular band and latter-day Gong-sters Steffe Sharpstrings and Graham Clark; it’s an album that kicks all manner of musical memories around… classic prog is the most obvious touchstone… but refuses to bog itself down amidst the usual sonic suspects.

So we slip from the downbeat delights of “Orange Sky” to the more frantic machinations of “Trouble”; and then it’s into a couple of numbers that might as well be improvisations, solid jams that leap into similar pastures to late 70s Hawkwind (think “Uncle Sam’s On Mars” if he’d actually gone a bit further), spread across a quarter of an hour’s worth of “Kozmik Eye” and seven more of the title track.

Gripping, too, is “Cassiopeia, 2016” – indeed, that might be the album’s tour de force, jazz-spaced cosmic rock underpinned throughout by Grace’s ever present synths, but open to everyone else as well; and it all wraps up with “The Grand Scheme of Things,” a return to the opener’s slow-burning moodiness melting around its gradual descent into Earth-y harmonics and some of Grace’s greatest vocals of the night.

It must have been a remarkable show; it’s certainly a dynamic album, and if it sends you off seeking the rest of Grace’s catalog, just remember to buckle your seatbelt first.

 

1 unicorn

Unicorn

Blue Pine Trees

(Esoteric/Cherry Red – CD)

You probably need to dig deep into the memory banks to recall Unicorn, a British four piece who emerged beneath the aegis of Dave Gilmour, and knocked out three uniformly glorious albums… a little bit prog, a little bit country, a little bit pub rock… in the mid-1970s before vanishing like their namesake creature.

But Blue Pine Trees , their debut, reminds us that they deserved a lot more, and its latest incarnation – preluding, we hope, a wholesale reissue campaign – is jam-packed with proof of the band’s great intentions.

Musically they were spectacular – Spin Cycle caught them opening for Hawkwind around the time of this album’s release and was instantly enraptured, and that despite the sheer mismatch of the bill.   Ten songs pinpoint the melodic brilliance of their music, opening with an “Electric Nights” that nails them into the kind of territory that a rootsier Dire Straits might have fallen into, had there been less reliance on that guitar sound… in fact, recent solo Mark Knopfler releases might well have spent a fair bit of time hanging out with old Unicorn albums, a mood that percolates across Blue Pine Trees and will reach its apex on their second set, Too Many Crooks.

Certainly the presence of Dave Gilmour as producer, while doubtless a selling point for some would-be purchasers, should not be regarded as an acid test by the unconverted.  Blue Pine Trees packs a casual looseness that falls far from any Floydian pastures; indeed, if you think think Brinsley Schwarz before big rigs and flying pigs, you’ll again be in the right ballpark.

The original album is appended here with no less than seven bonus tracks, including a couple of out-takes, a BBC session and both sides of the “Ooh! Mother” and “I’ll Believe In You” 45s; there’s a chunky booklet, too, which reminds us that anyone listening to Kate Bush’s “Passing Through Air” b-side is listening to Unicorn too – Gilmour used drummer Pete Perryer and bassist Pat Martin on her first demo session.

But talking of Brinsley Schwarz….

 

7 brinsleyBrinsley Schwarz

It’s All Over Now

(Mega Dodo – LP, CD, cassette)

It’s All Over Now, and indeed it was.  This was the pub rock leviathan’s final album, recorded with the band on the edge of breaking up, but holding it together for one last go, just to see if their damnable luck might change.  Of course it didn’t… in fact, as doomed discs go, It’s All Over Now might have written the book.  Canned on completion, it flirted with a release in the mid-1980s, only to be shelved again, so this marks its first ever appearance.

Which, when you consider how much activity has surrounded the band since its demise, isn’t simply remarkable.  It’s absurd, as well.

For longtime Schwarz watchers, there are a few familiar moments – “Private Number” was a latter-day live favorite, and can be found, indeed, on the Live Favourites album that Mega Dodo put out a couple of years back; “God Bless (Whoever Made You)” was retrieved from oblivion by Jona Lewie in 1979, and “Cruel To Be Kind” remains one of Nick Lowe’s signature hits.  All of which should cue you in to just how strong this album was.

Falling apart or not, Brinsley Schwarz were as tight and together here as ever in the past, and if there’s even more of an American feel to these songs than they had permitted themselves in the past, there’s also a tauter pop edge, too.  Indeed, the band’s own belief that this was their stab at relaunching themselves in a non-pub rock world is thoroughly borne out from beginning to end.  And, at last, the Brinsley Schwarz story is complete.

 

8 hackettSteve Hackett & Djabe

Summer Storms and Rocking Rivers

(Esoteric Antenna/Cherry Red – CD/DVD)

Another Steve Hackett live album, you groan, and another go round for “Ace of Wands,” “Firth of Fifth,” “In That Quiet Earth” and “Los Endos.”  You could probably create entire stand-alone box sets from the multitudinous versions of those songs on the shelves, but you would also have a hard time sitting still because,though the songs remains the same, the performances shift like … well, like summer storms and rocking rivers, and remind us why Hackett is still regarded among the most eclectic guitarists of his generation.

Recorded live in Bratislava in 2011 and Budapest the following year, Hackett here is paired with the Hungarian jazz band Djabe (with whom he has worked on and off since 2007), to conjure a remarkable sense of fusion that falls far from any of that term’s best-established parameters.  Hackett himself is on breathtaking form, both pursued by and pursuing his bandmates’ twisted shadows across two full sets (the DVD and CD feature entirely different performances) that draw more or less equally from both act’s repertoire.

Indeed, the Djabe material might well be the highlight here, stretching Hackett not in directions that he’s never walked before, but certainly along sundry paths less traveled.   But the solo acoustic set that pops up on the DVD will take your breath away too, while the bonus features on the DVD include a piece recorded with the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra that, again, turns its face in a whole new direction.

So yes, another Steve Hackett live album.  And yes, another one that you do need to hear.

 

9 JAH-WOBBLE-Final-finalJah Wobble 

In Dub

(30 Hertz/Cherry Red – 2CD)

A successor of sorts to Wobble’s Redux anthology box set of a couple of years ago, In Dub is a two CD collection of, indeed, the dubbed Wobble, drawing from releases dating back to 1983 (and his exit from Public Image), through that string of often astonishing albums that only begin with the reverberations of his seismically-charged bass sound.

If you know (or, better still, own) the albums from which much of this is taken… Shout at the Devil, Alpha One Three, The Inspiration of William Blake, collaborations with Youth and Bill Laswell, etc… you already know what to expect, both from the familiar material and the handful of new recordings that have been mixed into the brew.

But that doesn’t make it any less essential, especially when you stop here, too, for the “decadent disco mix” of “Invaders of the Heart”; and for a handful of tracks presented in both their original and their dub incarnations.  Wobble’s own liner notes, meanwhile, trace his own love of, and life in, dub from its beginnings in early seventies London; through the influence of a cache of still-revered albums Lee Perry’s Blackboard Jungle, King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown); and on into the realms wherein he is truly in a class of one.

Albums like Chinese Dub and English Roots Music both delved into whole new musical realms in search of the demon dub – from the latter, “[A] Blacksmith [Courted Me]” takes a traditional song that has been covered as far afield as Maddy Prior and Linda Ronstadt, and morphs it into unimagined pastures; elsewhere, “Cleopatra King Size” and “Symphony of Palms” investigate Egyptian stylings, again from beneath a canopy of echo and bass.

It’s a luscious album, then, but more than that it’s a reminder that Wobble remains one of our most far-sighted and adventurous musical mavericks.  And this, even more than Redux, is where your own investigations should begin.

 

9 cloudsMark & the Clouds

Cumulus

(Mega Dodo – CD)

Ever effervescent, which means they’re a lot more fun than you probably deserve, Mark & the Clouds finally drop their second album, and what a glorious racket it is.  Their modus operandi, of course, has not changed – classic sixties-styled pop that prompts comparisons to everyone from the Beatles to the Kinks and onto the Small Faces, but with an extra-added buoyancy that bops in corners that most others never think of.

A dozen songs on the album, three more available on the download, Cumulus is one of those fist-pumping, knee bending, guitar strumming offerings that leaves you grinning like a loon for days on end, a transistor radio worth of hits-you-missed that sends you scrambling over the sand dunes to sit near the person who’s playing it loudest – in fact, it seems strange to be playing it in the depths of an east coast winter, when it ought to be adding its weight to the sunniest day.

No matter.  Eased into the mood by “On Her Bike”; set dancing by “Road, Mud and Cold”; and reeling by “Hit By Lightning” – we’re only three tracks in and already, Cumulus has tingled toes that most records never touch.  By the time you hit “You’re Just a Liar”… “Take My Sky”… “Don’t Block the Sun”… (and don’t forget the downloadable “Evil Fairies”), you’re reaching for their debut album and bunkering in for the long haul.  Just don’t dare leave the room, cos you’ll miss another killer hook.

Leave a Reply