Reviews: Gene Loves Jezebel, Child Ballads, Bordellos, A Year in the Country, ELP, Anthony Phillips

Gene Loves Jezebel

Dancing Underwater (CD)

Westworld Recordings

Well, isn’t this a surprise?  Not the fact that Gene Loves Jezebel’s first full album since 1999’s VII is as good as you ever hoped it would be, back in their glittery-glammy-goth past.  That’s not at all surprising.  It’s the fact that it actually exists that’s the shock.  The Jezzies have scarcely been more than an on-off club circuit cult for twenty-five years now, with their existence further scarred by the (occasional) presence of two separate bands operating beneath much the same name – the consequence of brothers Jay and Michael Aston parting company just as they broke through in America in the mid-late 1980s

This, as with VII, and the preceding Heavenly Bodies (1992) and Kiss of Life (1990) , is Jay Aston’s outfit, which means he’s accompanied by much the same line-up as we remember from the old videos… a rhythm section of Pete Rizzo and Chris Bell and, on guitar, James Stevenson, still the closest we’ve got to a genuine guitar hero since Macy’s stopped churning them out in the late 1970s.  And, while they make no effort to disguise the fact that a helluvalotta years have passed since the hordes generally cared that “hey!  There’s a new Gene Loves Jezebel album!!!!!!!,” it’s not resignation or maturity that they grasp here, so much as their tightest overall grip on songwriting yet.

Which means, look away if you’re searching for the next “Desire” or “Motion of Love.”  But come inside if Kiss of Life lurks at the top of your Jezziebox, because that’s the mood that permeates.

From the sweetly old-fashioned “How Do You Say Goodbye”; through the yearning ballad-with-balls that is “Flying (The Beautiful Blue),” Dancing Underwater is less an amalgam of past Gene genies (the lot of most “reunions,” after all), and more the kind of progression that they should have been following all along.

This is especially true of a title track which feels like someone’s been listening to “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” (if it fell into the hands of Mazzy Star) and decided “no, let’s not go there today,”  but the entire package truly peaks with “Izitme,” pulsating moodiness bisected by clamoring guitar and a beat that makes you howl for a twelve-inch remix.  And a proper one, as well, like they used to make.

But those are scarcely exceptions, for the whole thing is exquisite.  If you’re sampling songs on iPrunes or wherever, hit first on “Ain’t It Enough” because, at first, you might think “yes, it is.”  But it’s also the closest the band have looked towards a hit single since “Jealous” (or maybe “Josephina”), an insatiable little ear worm that will devour your attention all day.  There’s “Cry 4 U,” a rollicking romp that makes you want to uncase the air guitar and stand on the table throwing shapes at the neighbors; and there’s the penultimate “Chase the Sun,” a stripped down drift that dangles quite precipitously on the edge of chaos, before abruptly fading out with a click.

And more besides.

So welcome back Gene, welcome back Jezebel, and don’t leave it so long till the next one, okay?  And in the meantime, how about a vinyl release as well?

 

A Year in the Country

Undercurrents (CD/download)

ayearinthecountry.co.uk

Following on from the recent flurry of various artists collections, this latest offering from A Year in the Country is the work of the blog/label’s own mastermind, and it might well be the most audacious yet – a one man attempt to explore all the “areas of culture that draw from the landscape, the patterns beneath the plough, the pylons and amongst the edgelands and where they meet with the lost progressive futures, spectral histories and parallel worlds of what has come to be known as hauntology.”

A one stop shop, then, for one of the most broadly delineated, stylistically divergent and technologically disparate “genres” in modern music – for it is not only music that is absorbed within its clutches; literature, television, cinema and art, too, play just as great a role.  Yeah, good luck with that.

The thing is – it succeeds.

Hauntology is a primarily British phenomenon in its current guise; an American equivalent would be very different, and it might also be even more disturbing – how could it be otherwise, when its components blend Nathaniel Hawthorne with The Electric Factory, then throw “Ode to Billy Joe” in for  good measure?

But it’s also a universal movement, race memories of an age before the ages began, and that’s the point to which Undercurrents always returns.

Nine tracks (twelve if you include the four parts that comprise the nine minute “Drifting”) give little away in terms of titles, at least on paper.  But listening conjures familiar imagery that will eventually dovetail; the chimes of a music box, the creak of a gate, the rush of the wind, the crackle of static, the turning of pages.  Cathode hiss and transistor hum from the bottom of the lake.

Occasionally the vision becomes clear – the dark electronics of “Currents” echo the music of the future as the past once imagined it might be, distorted though the passage of time has rendered it; “The Heart of the Storm” is the sound of ancient machinery warming up for an evening’s romp.

For the most part, however, Undercurrents is the sound of our forgotten past distorting into our inquisitive present, be it something as intangible as a personal memory of how things used to feel; or as blatant as buying an old favorite TV show and wishing blu-ray had a “70s interference” option.  A half-imagined nursery rhyme which you recall as being quite creepy, but you can’t quite remember the words; a fission of fear, and anticipatory shiver; the taste of old bubblegum; a dead bird in the woods.  Play “Dreamscapes of Old” after dark on the headphones.  You will turn around at least once, but your younger self will have darted out of sight before you do.

In truth, hauntology expands across too many landscapes, and too much private longing, for any single album… or even series of albums… to truly sum up all of its components.  And there is a lot of them, from the Ghost Box catalog to chunks of Trunk Records, from Broadcast and the Eccentronic Research Council to the Hookland blog and Chris Lambert’s Black Meadows chronicles.  There’s a pile of DVDs and a mountain of paperbacks; and, of course, there’s A Year in the Country itself.  In other words, nobody really understands what hauntology is, but you always know it when you find it.  Undercurrents cuts out the searching.

 

Emerson, Lake & Palmer

Works Deluxe Edition (2 CDs)

Works – Volume 2 Deluxe Edition (2 CDs)

Love Beach

(BMG/Manticore)

By 1977, ELP had spent half their lifetime more or less out of sight – solo singles by Lake and Emerson had little in common with the mothership’s traditional peregrinations (and rightly so), and only that gloriously sprawling triple live album had bothered the stores since Brain Salad Surgery, four years earlier.

With what, then, would the fearless threesome astonish us next?  Well, in a way, we already knew.  Those solo 45s (the winsome “I Believe in Father Christmas” and the pounding “Honky Tonk Train Blues”) were not, after all, mere bagatelles to chase away boredom.  They were previews for far grander ambitions – a double album sold beneath the ELP brandname, but featuring just one side of new ELP material.  The remainder was devoted, a side apiece, to whatever the individuals wanted to do,

Which, in turn, meant… well, Keith was the classical lover, so here’s a piano concerto.  Greg was the balladeer, so here’s five new ballads.  And Carl’s the drummer, so here’s half a dozen drum led instrumentals.  Including a new version of his first album showcase, “Tank,” to match his bandmates’ own return to those pastures – Emerson’s piece is nothing if not a grandiloquent reprise of “The Three Fates”; Lake’s a lucid return to “Lucky Man” territory (albeit without the toe-curling lyrics).  And how you felt about their efforts was very much dependent upon how you much more you could take of those earlier pieces.  But one caveat.  Very, very few people have ever cited the first ELP album as their best.

That said, the piano concerto is a magnificent piece of work, while Lake’s side includes some of his finest ever ELP-era numbers and, while it’s true that “Lend Your Love To Me Tonight” and “Closer to Believing” may not have worked within the group format, “C’est la Vie” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name” certainly would have.

Palmer’s side, too, is more than meritorious, showcasing his powers without being dominated by then, and now you’ve made it this far, it’s easy to flip to the final side, where the mood becomes truly magnificent – a fine ensemble rendering of “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which spun off a surprise hit single at the same time as devouring half a side of vinyl; and the utterly preposterous, but infinitely enjoyable “Pirates,” a strip cartoon set to bat-crazy bombast.

Indeed, had the whole project followed up on the might of side four, with the full band executing the best of the solo tracks, it could easily have become one of the trio’s greatest.  Instead, the very best of Works was scattered over what they did (or didn’t) do next.

Works Volume 2 was conceived and, indeed, marketed as a round-up of old rarities and recent out-takes, a hodgepodge of oddities that reached back to the b-side of 1973’s “Jerusalem” single, and the Brain Salad title track that had hitherto seen service on a flexidisc alone; the Lake and Emerson solo singles; and so forth.  Yet it hangs together in all the ways that its predecessor didn’t, and by the time ELP got the show out on the road, it feels like they agreed.  Works Volume 2 itself barely devours one quarter of its deluxe edition; the remainder is devoted to the Works Live album that followed, and the rest of the show as well.  Which, cherrypicking its new material from both volumes of Works, lets us see what a great LP the band could have made. (Among the other inclusions, “Peter Gunn” alone is worth the price of admission.)

But they didn’t, and they weren’t going to.  From its tacky title on down, Love Beach has been assaulted by so many people, its own makers included, that it’s futile trying to stand up for it, and redundant to rehash its failings. It’s here if you want to keep the collection intact, and care for alternate mixes and rehearsals too, but nobody says that you have to.

In truth, it really isn’t as grisly as its reputation insists; maybe at the time, it was a let down, but time has been kind to its contents.  Whatever you choose to do, however, do give a spin to “Canario.”  It, too, is as good as anything on Works.

 

various artists

Classic English & Scottish Ballads from the Francis James Child Collection (CD)

Smithsonian Folkways 

Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Kraftwerk, the Velvets and Dolls… and Francis James Child.  There’s probably no list of rock’s most influential names that does not include the first five names; and, contrarily, no list at all that features the last.  And yet, since their publication in the late 19th century, the collection of English and Scottish Ballads that Harvard professor Child compiled into eight volumes have become the essential songbook for successive generations of performers, across as many genres as you like.

From Woody Guthrie to Current 93, from Joan Baez to Jerry Garcia; and onto almost anyone who has ever slipped Arr. Trad into their credits (which includes the entire British skiffle scene, which drags John and Paul and more into the equation) the 305 ballads that Child brought together have influenced, inspired and informed every aspect of popular song, a relationship that is without peer in the annals of either traditional or modern music.

When Jefferson Hamer and Anais Mitchell took away a BBC radio folk award a few years back, it was for their work with the canon; and if Zeppelin’s “Gallows Pole” is an utterly unexpected revision of a Child Ballad, so is Gustav Holst’s “King Estmere.”  Whenever Bob Dylan lets slip a live rendition of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” he is revisiting the sixteenth century Child Ballad “Lord Randall.”  When Ritchie Blackmore leads Blackmore’s Night into “Barbara Allen,” they are performing a song first noted by Samuel Pepys in 1660.

These songs were never confined to the pages of Child’s writings, after all.  For centuries past (Child’s earliest inclusion, “Judas,” dates to the thirteenth century and is, in fact, the oldest extant English language ballad), the ballads had been passed from singer to singer, from troubadour to minstrel without any recourse to the printed page, and this tradition would only continue after Child completed his task.

Ever-changing, ever-evolving, the ballads moved through time as though time itself was standing still, with fresh versions (that themselves were often ancient) being discovered deep into the 20th century as Alan Lomax, Cecil Sharp, George Mitchell and co delved into the surviving folk traditions, seeking out the skeins that Child had overlooked.

The difference was, Child wrote his discoveries out on paper.  Lomax and co recorded theirs’ on cylinders, acetates and tapes that would be studied as avidly by modern scholars as Child’s work was by the antiquarians of his time.   And, as the popularity of folk music spread throughout post-war America, the Child Ballads were at the forefront of the movement.

The appeal of the Child Ballads was, and remains, instantaneous.  Alive with some of the most sensationalist plots in musical history, a succession of murders, betrayals and supernatural occurrences, the Child Ballads are living history, refracted through populist prisms that are as alive today as they were in centuries past.

Haunted castles, vengeful ghosts, violent death, perfidious spouses, merciless rulers, death-bed curses, evil step-mothers, love-lorn suicides, Satanic pacts, wicked witches, victorious heroes, vainglorious cheats, they all tumble from the ballads, a true kaleidoscope of calumny.  Even the legends of Robin Hood, so familiar today from television and film, exist primarily through the medium of the ballad, and Child devoted almost one-eighth of his collection to these.

Recordings of these tabloid epics are legion, and Smithsonian Folkways were responsible for many of them, at least in the years before “folk” itself became a mass marketable commodity.  Narrowing that corpus down to a single disc, no less than twenty-one ballads are included in this glorious collection, from the expected Jean Ritchie, Ewan MacColl, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger, through to names that might never have been uttered outside of the original field recordings.The majority of tracks were recording during the 1950s and 1960s, but the extremes reach as far back as a 1948 Lead Belly radio session, and forward into the 1990s.

The emphasis is on American folk performances; and leans towards the songs as performed before the likes of Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and the Albion Band preserved specific arrangements within the popular psyche.  Such names as the Golden Eagle String Band, Ellen Stekert, Artus Moser and Horton Barker may or may not be familiar.  But the performances are as entrancing as they are compulsive – storytelling in its purest form, music in its starkest.  And, when you add the forty page booklet and the discographical clues that lead you back to past Smithsonian collections, the Child Ballads come alive in a way that all the other stuff you listen to never will.

 

The Bordellos

Life, Love & Billy Fury (CD/download)

The Bordellos featuring Dee Claw

Underground Tape Volume Six (download)

bordellos.bandcamp.com

Listening to the Bordellos is like waking up one morning and discovering that all the records you have ever loved have been squished together into one glorious lo-fi mash-up, with the dodgy ones excised and replaced by something better, and then honed into a slab of melodic mutation that makes you wonder why these tracks weren’t on your list to begin with.

Nineteen songs on the album, a further four on the EP, are too many to play favorites with – as with everything else that the maniacally prolific Bordellos come out with, you simply rack them up on a playlist the size of a sasquatch and inhale deeply.  A world view that hangs on the jaundiced side of utterly-pissed-off is only one of the attractions; a musical intonation that wonders what would happen if Shadow Morton, Billy Childish, Joe Meek and the Velvets had all been hatched in the same laboratory is another.  But most of all, it’s a razor sharp eye for whatever themes the Bordellos have decided deserve their attention, and the razor blade wit with which they dissect them.

Past Bordellos reviews in these pages and elsewhere have pondered all of this before, of course, but it’s a point that can never be labored too much.  This is what rock’n’roll wanted to sound like before the labels, the critics and yes, the clever clogs musicians and songwriters got involved, setting standards that were far more interested in saying what shouldn’t be done, than outlining what could.

If the Beatles had been forced to play inside a cardboard box, with a producer who simply strung one mike through the rafters and then went to the pub, they would have sounded like the Bordellos.  If Chuck Berry wrote his greatest hits in the middle of a blackout, and never plugged in again.  If Lou Reed had been more interested in D-I-Y than ding dongs, and thought “mix” was the plural of Michael… again, you get the picture and there are those who might think it’s a horrible one.  Especially those self anointed “music lovers” who will tolerate any kind of turgid crap so long as it’s played by exemplary musicians.

But there’s more craft here than in a wardrobe full of witches, and more reasons to be cheerful, too.  And though the Bordellos may not be the only reason you’ll want to get up in the morning, if you like even two of the ingredients that make up the album title… life, love, or Billy Fury… then there’s a whole bunch of songs you need to hear.  Before you go and download the rest.

 

Anthony Phillips

Slow Dance (2CD/DVD)

(Esoteric/Cherry Red

The ongoing reawakening of Phillips’ catalog continues with 1990’s Slow Dance – a well-titled, but unexpectedly-so instrumental piece that matched him with a two part orchestral suite and promptly became one of his most acclaimed albums.

That applause was well deserved, and remains so.  Close to a decade and a half into his solo career (and twenty years on from leaving Genesis), Phillips had long since established himself as an artist who skirted instinctively around the pitfalls of whatever over-arching “genre” he might be placed into this month.

But Slow Dance bristles with an audacity that’s apparent from the off, the windswept strings that melt into a melody that is both slightly familiar and overwhelmingly fresh.  His guitar playing has never sounded better and across the first CD here, reprising the original album, all the joy that was your first exposure to Slow Dance comes flooding back in abundance.

Disc two, a selection of “vignettes” drawn from the full performance, sliced into previously unreleased alternate mixes and versions, fascinates both in its own right and as a close-up glance at the construction of the main piece (plus, it’s fun to put names to the individual movements); but it’s disc three that is the real doozy, not merely reawakening Slow Dance in 5.1 surround sound… that’s common to this entire series… but delivering the most expansive 5.1 of the lot.

Every part, every passage, swells to fill the available space, and those moments on the original CD that sound a little cluttered suddenly find their feet and run free.  Play it for the first time, and you’ll be wondering how you missed so much in the past.  Grow accustomed to it and you might never play the stereo mix again.

Leave a Reply