Reviews: John Cale, Jethro Tull, Dave Swarbrick, Adrian Sherwood, Black Sabbath, Glitter Band, Theatre of Hate

1John Cale

Fragments of a Rainy Season

(Domino 2CD)

First released back in 1992, in an age when you didn’t trip over Cale live albums every time you left the house, Fragments of a Rainy Season was also issued in an age when you weren’t forever fighting off “unplugged’ collections with a variety of sticks and cudgels.  And, though it’s a long way from Sabotage and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (truly the peaks of the live Cale experience), still it’s the culmination of the previous decade or so’s worth of his sporadic solo showcases, an opportunity to trawl through a quarter century career without a band to dull the edge.

He alternates between piano and guitar alone, but there’s always that voice to soar up your spine, and when the demons are unleashed at the end of “Cable Hogue,” Cale can’t even hear you scream because he’s screaming as well.

Twenty songs strong in its original form, bolstered now by eight “out-takes” (including several with strings), Fragments highlights more or less every album he’d released thus far, which in turn means it hits all the ones you need to hear.  From Vintage Violence, through Paris 1919, Fear, Slow Dazzle, Helen of Troy… on through Honi Soit and Music for a New Society… “Dying On The Vine,” Wrong Way Up, Words for the Dying…. if you’re ever asked for a beginners guide to John Cale, this is where to start, and it wraps up with what is surely the definitive version of Lenoard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the song Cale originally contributed to the I’m Your Man tribute album, but had continued to tinker with thereafter.

Some ears might declare that the album’s highlight, and maybe it is.  But the string driven “Fear” and “Antarctica Starts Here” that dwell among the bonus tracks are unimaginably glorious, and “Heartbreak Hotel” is restructured once again, and comes out the other end feeling even creepier than before.

 

2Dave Swarbrick

It Suits Me Well: The Transatlantic Recordings 1976-1983

(Cherry Tree/Cherry Red 2CDs)

Although the mark he made on the history of British folk is among the most indelible of them all, history likes to pretend that Dave Swarbrick made his greatest contributions in tandem with other headline names… which isn’t hard, because he worked alongside most of them.  But it’s a disingenuous viewpoint as well.

It is true that Swarb did not release his first truly solo album until 1976, by which time he’d already worked with AL Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, Fairport Convention and Martin Carthy, Vashti Bunyan and John Renbourne.  It is also true that some of his later releases felt somewhat samey.  But, the dawn of his solo operations saw a sextet of albums, two between 1976-77, two more in 1978, and the last pair between 1981-83, that illuminate all the virtues he brought to those others’ recordings, and rope in many of them as co-conspirators, too.  Including, for those eighties releases, the legendary Full House line-up of Fairport.

It’s the four albums that bookend this flurry of activity that are repackaged here, two per CD and all four positively stellar.  The seventies duo, Swarbick and Swarbrick 2, are the starkest, acoustic affairs that see him accompanied by Carthy, Kate Graham, pianist Beryl Marriot and her husband Roger (on melodeon), predominantly traditional and preternaturally lovely.  Smiddyburn and Flittin’, on the other hand, are rockier, closer (as you’d expect) to the Fairport sound, but never once looking back to admire the all-systems-firing unit’s past.   And why would they?  The music they were playing had already proved itself to be timeless.  Why would they want to pin it down now?

Swarbrick himself described these albums as “simple and unassuming,” and in many ways, he is right.  But his playing could never be tied down to such scant descriptions, and the vision that he brought to it was likewise forever bursting skywards.  His death, last June, left us as bereft as any of the more headline-hogging passings that have also marred 2016, and this collection reminds us of exactly who we lost.  He was never a sideman, even when he was; never just one of the boys in the band, even when he wanted to be.  He was Swarb.  And you’d do well to remember that.

 

3Jethro Tull

Stand Up – The Elevated Edition

(Chrysalis/Parlophone box set)

Continuing the series of bookshelf style packages with which Tull have excelled in recent years, this new edition of their second album complements, but in no way supplants, its last appearance on the reissue shelves, back in 2010.

Then, the “Collectors Edition” brought the original mix together with a Carnegie Hall live show and a DTS surround sound mix.  This time, the album has been remixed by Steven Wilson, the live show is from Stockholm (where they were opening for Jimi Hendrix, apropos of nothing), and the DVD serves up the expected surround sound plus a “flat transfer” of the original album.  Collectors will want them both.  Casual listeners should head this way.

The book itself is spectacular, hours of reading mixed with details and photos, press cuttings, tour itineraries, and oodles of interviews which include a fascinating chat with Jimmy Grashow, artist behind Stand Up’s extraordinary art work.  Which, incidentally, is reproduced within.  You open the book and up pop the Tull guys, just like they did on the old LP.

As for the music – what is there to say?  Stand Up is, in many ways, the quintessential Tull album, cut before they wandered off into the realm of side- and album- long concept conceits, and before cynicism and bitterness became the lyrical default.

Across the original album’s ten tracks, the vivacious literacy of Ian Anderson’s songwriting is revealed in its most sympathetic light, peaking with the non album hit single “Living in the Past,” included as a bonus track in its stereo, mono and Wilson remixed incarnations.   There’s a neat BBC session, and the live show is blistering – again, a reminder of Tull before things started to get so obsessive (although we could probably live without fifteen minutes of “Dharma for One”).

The Steve Wilson remix, meanwhile… well, it’s a Steve Wilson remix, which means again walking that delicate balance between keeping everything sounding the same, for the sake of the old guard fans, and mixing it all up a little, to prove he was in the room.  Nothing too egregious, though, and the overall impression is that the album sounds brighter, sharper, cleaner.  You’ll probably enjoy it.

 

4Adrian Sherwood/various artists

On.U Sound – Dread Operator

(Hot Milk/Cherry Red box set)

Throughout the early-mid 1980s; throughout an age in which the powers of post-punk rock and dub danced so closely, Adrian Sherwood was the producer you most wished your favorite band would team up with.  He drew some best-ever performances from the ex-Slits Ari Up; conjured a glorious solo album from Judy Nylon; and remixed Depeche Mode so utterly thoroughly that your ears are still trying to make sense of the ensuing twelve-inch.

His attentions, however, rarely strayed in such directions.  Rather, he kept up a barrage of releases for his own On.U concern, and gathering even a handful together gives modern ears the opportunity to experience dub at its darkest and deepest.  And that’s what’s happening here.  Four CDs squeezed into one box bring fresh life to Singers & Players Leaps and Bounds, Creation Rebel’s Lows and Highs, the superb Wild Paarty Sounds compilation, rounding up a dozen past productions (including Ms Nylon’s incendiary “The Dice”), and Threat to Creation, with Creation Rebel and the New Age Steppers combined for an album that genuinely lived up to its title.

All four are crucial listening, of course.  Volume and echo are the key ingredients, and bass lines so low that they could trip the most cautious dancer; and yes, even if you approached them from a deep love of reggae, they were weird, widescreen special effects lashed to primeval rhythms and glorious chants, and distortions so profound that, in Sherwood’s own words, “it just sounded like your radio blowing up.”

Not that you heard his work on the radio too much.  On.U was the sound of darkened clubs and dance floors, where it bled in alongside PiL, Gang of Four and Durutti Column, dislocated beats from the farthest edge of rhythm, while a smattering of names from Jamaica looked on… Scientist and Scratch were crucial avenues to On.U’s eventual acceptance on the dub mainstream; Prince Far I just the first of the legends with whom Sherwood would go on to work (find him on Wild Paarty Sounds, too).

Even today, you need to crank things up high to get the full On.U effect… the suspicion that Sherwood buried sounds in the mix that could only be activated by ear-bleeding volume is one that has never been confirmed.  But you’ll share it when you spin through these four, and any anything else that might be set to follow… it’s more or less impossible now to collect a full complement of On.U albums, but a few boxes like this will go some way towards helping.

 

5Theatre of Hate

Westworld deluxe edition

(Burning Rome/Cherry Red box set)

Across an early eighties landscape scarred by rampaging Ants in pantaloons; through a world that had surrendered punk for the sound of a thousand beating drums; and, when you came right down to it, in an age when manic yodeling really demanded a comeback, Theatre of Hate arose from the wreckage of the earlier Pack to ask the most potent question of the age.

Do you believe in the West World?

The single was stupendous, a chaotic amalgam of tribal drums, wild west rhythms, haunted prairies, drifting tumbleweed, and above it all, that vocal – soaring, keening, peaking, yowling.  Nothing had prepared the ears of 81 for the sound of ToH, and though frontman Kirk Brandon was destined to continue his glorious journey with the later Spear of Destiny, nothing matches it, either.

No less than six versions of “Westworld” are scattered across the three discs in this box set, from the opening album cut to the tumultuous dub mix, two scintillating broadcasts and a vivid live snapshot, and it still sounds feral every time.  But, lest we forget, there was more to ToH than that one raging beauty.

The entire Westworld album was a riot of color and chaos and the b-side, “Propaganda,” just as stirring.  Alternative mixes give album highlights some new shading, and a brace of John Peel sessions catch the band at vivid peaks.  And then there’s a previously unreleased live album which is less exciting in theory, simply because the bulk of ToH’s existing catalog (including both their first and third albums) was recorded in concert.  But then it begins (with the raucous “The Wake”) and all doubts are dismissed.

History gazes back at ToH and the whole thing feels like a lost opportunity… a second studio album canned and lost for another ten years; a couple more singles which didn’t really do much; and a slew of archive releases which desperately need to be properly sorted out.  Maybe this is the beginning of that process, or maybe it, too, will simply hang in isolation.  Either way, the west world is here.  Believe in it.

 

6Black Sabbath

Paranoid Super Deluxe

(Rhino box set)

In the world of Great Rock What Ifs, few resound more tantalizingly than… what if Black Sabbath had actually followed up their hit single “Paranoid.”  If, instead of waiting eighteen months before releasing a new one (spring ’72’s “Tomorrow’s Dream”), they had slammed “Iron Man” into action, or “War Pigs” or even “Fairies Wear Boots”?

Listened to today, the Birmingham band’s second album is as close to a greatest hits collection as you could get without selling your soul (for rock’n’roll); recalled from 1970, it was the Thriller of its generation, an album so jam-packed with potential 45s that the whole thing could have sun on two speeds forever.

Except… “serious” bands didn’t chase hits in those days; rather, they occasionally endured them as incidental adjuncts to the main affair.  That’s why a flick through the annals of British chartdom at the dawn of the 1970s will see all manner of unrepentant hairies scoring a hit (or maybe two) with records which, they fervently assured their following, were never intended as anything more than a taster for the album.  Argent, Atomic Rooster, Curved Air, Deep Purple… and Sabbath, who hit number four in late 1970 , and even appeared on Top of the Pops.

They could have changed the world.

How many versions of Paranoid – the album – do you own?  Or, more reasonably, how many have you owned since you picked it up for the first time, maybe back in the seventies, on Warners in the US, Vertigo or NEMS in their homeland?

Eight songs that were magically stretched to ten to adhere to American copyright laws (betcha still can’t whistle either “Jack The Stripper” or “Luke’s Wall,” tracks within tracks on the earliest pressings), and which remain the sound of Sabbath in ear-bleeding, soul stirring excelsis.

Paranoid is not simply an LP, after all.  It is the blueprint for every so-called Heavy Metal record made in the forty-six years since then… and we say “so-called” because it was never metal to begin with.  It was simply the blues, slowed down to quaalude drip feed proportions, and then fed back through amplifiers whose knobs began at ten.  It might be the most perfect record ever made.

And its yours to collect in any format you like, on cassette or 8-Track, on reel-to-reel or quad.  On CD or deluxe CD, remastered, remaindered, and now re-monstered.

Paranoid Super Deluxe, the box set that has just crashed to earth, is not the ultimate rendering of this album.  It comes close, though, so we’ll let the completists get their complaints out of the way first.  The original quad mix is remastered here in stereo.  There’s no room for the April 1970 BBC session at which “Fairies Wear Boots” and “War Pigs” (under its original title of “Walpurgis”… “witches gathered at black masses”) made an appearance.  Nor the disc of (admittedly unexciting) alternates and out-takes that packed out the album’s last deluxe rendering.  Nor the 1970 Beat Club performance which added “Blue Suede Shoes” to the witches’ brew; nor a BBC In Concert broadcast.

But we do get… the original album.  The aforementioned stereo quad mix which thrills from the moment you realize that “War Pigs” does not speed up and up until it’s over, but grinds inexorably on.  And two live shows, from Montreux and Brussels, in August and October 1970, with the latter finally correcting the oft-bootlegged error that insists it was taped in Paris.  A hardback book, a repro tour program and a period poster.  It’s a gorgeous package and in terms of remastering, it’s hands down the best sounding Paranoid since the dawn of digital remastering.  Your woofers will weep, your tweeters will twist.

And what else is there to say about it?  If you already know Paranoid, you know that no other Sabbath album came close to its perfection (although yes, Masters of Reality tried, and the rest of the first five had their moments); and if you don’t, then where have you been all your life?  “War Pigs” and “Iron Man” still crush the furniture; “Planet Caravan” and “Hand of Doom” could chill global warming.  “Rat Salad” inching into “Fairies Wear Boots” are both so much fun it hurts, and if you’ve listened to “Electric Funeral,” then you can skip watching more-or-less every futuristic “the robots are coming to kill us” movie ever made.

And then there’s “Paranoid.”  The hit that could have set off an avalanche.

Their Sabbathic Majesties demand your allegiance.

 

7The Glitter Band

The Albums

(7Ts/Cherry Red – box set)

But talking of devils…

It was the final track on the last Glitter Band album, by which time they’d shortened their name to the G Band, and placed their entire glam rock heritage far behind them.   It was also, probably, the last song you’d ever expect to hear them turn their hands to.  But the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” always cried out for a seventies revival, and better the G Band, grinning out from that garish cover, than some po-faced gaggle of sad sack architecture students, trying to kid us they were being meaningful and menacing.

Which doesn’t mean the G Band’s version of “Sympathy for the Devil” is anything that the average Stones fan will be running to hear too often.  Or the average Glitter Band fan, come to that.  But full marks for trying, and even fuller marks for not taking it at all seriously.  There’s even a jokey spoken word back and forth in the middle.

Four albums in a clamshell box, The Albums is the Glitter Band story in its entirety, from the first-time Hey! that grew from the hit “Angel Face,” through Rock’n’Roll Dudes – a title, with matching cover, that must rank among the ghastliest in rock history; on to Listen to the Band, by which time not many people wanted to; and wrapping up with Paris Match, the abbreviation’s one stab at being accepted as something more than a mass of meaty fists pumping the air, while every chorus sang “hey.”

But it is way too easy to mock.  The Glitter Band ran up hit singles like other groups ran up bar tabs, and whether you liked them or not, there was no escaping the sheer magnificence of “Games Up,” “Goodbye My Love,” “Just For You,” “People Like You, People Like Me” (okay, maybe not that one) and the Anglo Beach Boys perfection of  “Love In The Sun.”  Nor any denying the fact that, while other bands of the teenybait glam rocking ilk simply styled their albums around filler-packed singles, the Glitter Band gave the impression that they tried to do something better.  And, generally, succeeded.

Hey! is a little lightweight, packing way too many covers into the show.  But thereafter, the musicians’ own tastes and ambitions drove the bus, and took it in directions that the label’s accountants might never have countenanced,  Plus, “Goodbye My Love” remains the greatest song ever written about losing your honey to a jumbo jet.

Bonus tracks stack b-sides and the like to the show; liners tell the glittering story.  There’s really not much else you could ask for.

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