Reviews: Schizo Fun Addict, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Sendelica, Atomic Rooster, The Fall, Pretty Things, Brit Girls, Hot Shots, the Searchers, Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Stray

King Crimson

Live in Chicago 28 June 2017 (2CDs)

Inner Knot

In a perfect world, every live show King Crimson have ever played would be available on CD.  In an imperfect one, there’s a lot that are already are, including the latest box full of vintage performances wrapped up in the Sailors’ Tales doorstop.

But, lest we think it’s all about the past, Live in Chicago looks back just six months to the current inCrimnation’s windy city showing, and a full two CD recounting of the evening’s action… which isn’t that different, song-wise, to any of the other recent live albums they’ve released.  But, of course, it’s the performnce, not the content, that has historically appealed about this band, and Live in Chicago catches an especially fiery night.

Bookended by stellar renditions of “Lark’s Tongue” and “Schizoid Man,” with old and new material seamless slipping against one another, the set is heavy – probably not coincidentally – on the 1970-73 period that Sailors’ Tales spotlights.  But such is the nature of the band that there’s never a sense of retrospection in sight.

From “The Lizard Suite” to “Pictures of a City,” nothing feels exhumed, nothing reeks of half-century-old cabbage.  And “Starless” just gets better every time they play it.

Amidst all the live work, one wonders whether this latest ljne-up will ever find time to make a studio album – and, in some ways, one hopes they don’t.  The “new” material has already taken on the guise of old favorites in concert, and the audience welcomes it as though that’s what it is.  A few more live albums this good, and it will be.

 

various artists

Am I Dreaming? – 80 Brit Girl Sounds of the 60s (3CDs)

RPM/Cherry Red

Now this is special.  Not because the theme itself is anything unusual, but because the music itself is only one part of the project.  The accompanying booklet itself is a jewel, as writer Ian Chapman unpicks the very history of Brit Girl collecting, recalling old articles, revisiting old books and replaying old compilations.  Eight volumes of RPM’s twenty-plus year old old Dream Babes collections are lovingly depicted, and though the accompanying track listings make you yearn for their immediate repackaging, this will keep you going until that happens.

Three CDs seize upon, indeed, eighty tracks, the vast majority forgotten singles and b-sides, with a handful of demos and unreleased numbers to up the rarity quotient even further.  And while it would be foolish to claim that every moment is golden, even a brief glance at the contents reveals the quality within…

…Cilla, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie Trent, Marianne Faithfull, Kathy Kirby, Sandy Shaw, all the big hitters are here… albeit not necessarily with the biggest hits.  But usually an interesting one.  Shaw, for example, ends the third disc with nothing more thrilling than a 1969 b-side – which just happens to be the first Led Zeppelin cover version ever released (“Your Time is Gonna Come”)

We catch glimpses of pop’s seventies future – early efforts from Kiki Dee, Christine Perfect, Tina Charles, Elkie Brooks, Beryl Marsden, Maxine Nightingale, Alison O’Donnell (via the sublime Mellow Candle), Helen Shapiro.   Singing thespians – Adrienne Poster, Susan Hampshire, Gillian Hills.

Joe Meek proteges, Andrew Oldham heroines, hopefuls and howlers.  The deeper you dig, the more gems you’ll find.  Graham Gouldman playing guitar behind High Society bandmate Friday Brown is one.  But most of all, it’s an evening spent with the transistor radio jammed tightly to your ear, and an alternative history of British sixties pop as it morphed through beat and ballads, psych and soul, and three CDs just aren’t enough.  This is the kind of box set that should last forever.

Now, why isn’t Twinkle included?

 

The Pretty Things

“The Same Sun” (single)

Fruits de Mer

Spinning off the Pretties’ last album… and you already know how great that was… “The Same Sun” is a circular Dick Taylor guitar riff, a rousing refrain, and a supercharged super-psych barrage that is as timeless as any of the band’s classic albums, but as fresh as tomorrow, too.  So, Pretties business as usual and as excellent as always, too.

A studio cut of the Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair” (familiar, in its live incarnation, from a past Pretties single, of course) is next, all chimes and echoes and over far too soon.  And then we’re into a couple of slabs of genuine sixties prettiness, versions of “She Says Good Morning” and “Alexander’ culled from the band’s 1969 Hyde Park gig (probably) and previously available only within the voluminous Pretties box set from earlier this year.  Which itself ranks among the most significant boxes of the past however-long.

It only stands to reason, then, that this is either the last great single of 2017, or the first of 2018.  (Release date is January 2.  But you’ll need to pre-order it long before then.)  Either way… it’s the Pretty Things.  You don’t need to know more than that.

 

Black Sabbath

The End (multiple formats)

Eagle Vision

The End.  Or is it?  The problem with playing the last gig you’ll ever play is, when you change your mind you need to have a good reason, and the sheer immensity of the Sabbath experience, as relayed across two CDs, three slabs of vinyl, a Blu-Ray/DVD and probably more besides, is itself reason enough for them never to stop.  Even though they say they have.

It’s easy to scorn Black Sabbath these days.  Always has been.  Even at the start, across those first three albums that remain unimpeachable, you required a certain frame of mind before you could even began to take them seriously, and the deeper into their career they got – even before Ozzy left, and things got really silly – the more pinches of salt you need to swallow.  By the time he came back for the first reunion, “Black Sabbath” was effectively the punch line to a joke.  As the actress said to the bishop.

But that first comeback tour was sensational, and they just kept improving after that – until we arrive at this, the final night of the final tour, in front of a hometown Birmingham audience that is equally divided between joy and tears.

Be smart – stick to the hits.  Seventeen tracks include a dozen from those first three albums, with even the much-lionized Volume Four turning in nothing more than a megalithic “Snowblind,” and a snatch of “Supernaut” as part of an Ozzy-less medley.  And every one of that dozen is peerless, both audibly – they’ve never sounded this good! – and, in a way, visibly.

Yes, they’re all old, and no you don’t need to see a sixty-nine year old man insisting he is “Iron Man.”  Except you do, because the years fall away from the players as much as they do from songs and, in the long canon of Sabbath live albums and videos, The End really is a new beginning.

Is it too late to fall in love with Sabbath again?

 

various artists

Hot Shots of Reggae (CD)

Doctor Bird/Cherry Red

The early seventies saw the UK Trojan label positively barrage the racks with new compilations, all of them designed to sweep up the singles that themselves were being released in such copious quantities that it was impossible to pick up them all.

The Tighten Up series remains the best remembered, but sets like Hot Shots of Reggae had their devotees too, and here it is again, more than doubled in length via thirteen bonus tracks, but still an exquisite snapshot of that one moment in time when…

When Ken Booth’s “Freedom Street,” the Melodians’ Sweet Sensation” and the Maytals’ “Monkey Man” were still considered brand new releases, and not – as they swiftly became – undisputed classics.  When the Pioneers’ “Simmer Down Quashie” seemed as vital as anything else they’d released; when Delroy Wilson’s “Show Me The Way” felt like a sure-fire hit single; when Bruce Ruffin’s “I’m The One” was the greatest ear worm of the age.

It’s a fabulous collection, but that goes without saying – more or less everything Trojan touched at this time can be filed among reggae’s greatest (early) hits, which is why there has always been such an insatiable market for the oldies.

And while even the most generous CD reissue cannot compare with the thrill of arriving home one Saturday in 1970-or-so, slitting the shrinkwrap from a brand new LP, and having Hot Shots ricochet out of your tiny pre-teen turntable (it’s just wrong, not having to flip the disc as Joe White’s “So Much Love” comes to an end), you’ll get over it.  Because the bonus tracks are as great as the original disc.

 

Sendelica

Cromlech Chronicles II (LP)

Fruits de Mer/Strangefish

Successor, of course, to Cromlech Chronicles I, II returns Sendelica to Mwnci Studios, and its neighboring standing stone, to “see if we could weave the magic again.”

They do, and maybe it’s even more magical than last time, a deeply meditative album whose opening, side-long “Ripples of the Megaliths” blends around cello and electronics to conjure what reminds one, in parts, of King Crimson (them again?) circa Lark’s Tongue (that again?).

Elsewhere, there’s a taste of the Third Ear Band, and elsewhere again, the occasional element of the usual suspects that fans are bound by law to mention whenever discussing Sendelica.  The Taj Mahal Travellers, for example.

Constantly shifting, but never-changing too, “Ripples of the Megaliths” is eighteen-plus minutes of eerie uplift, which bleeds imperceptibly (once you’ve turned the album over) into “Even Though My Mouth is Silent” – almost as long again, but raising the temperature with sudden sonic peaks, the tolling of a bell, sobbing saxophone and Cheryl Beer’s lonely repetition of the title… an over-equipped Nurse With Wound, perhaps, and dark and lovely as it ought to be.  Far, then, from the common perception of the Sendelica sound, but most of their music is.

Don’t let it get away.

 

The Fall

A-Sides 1978-2016 (3CDs)

Cherry Red

There’s two editions of this going around.  There’s a concise three CD box set of every a-side the band ever released, and there’s a seven CD companion which adds four further discs of every b-side.  We’ll stick to the short one here; we don’t have all night, after all.  But if you’re tempted by this, you need the other, because throughout the 1980s at least, the Fall were the one band that consistently ensured their b-sides were at least as good as their flips,

It’s a sobering package, whichever edition you buy.  Who knew they’d released so many 45s?  And so many good ones, too?  The eyes naturally come to rest on the “famous” songs – “Cruiser’s Creek,” “There’s a Ghost in my House,” “Why Are People Grudgeful,” “Bingo-Master’s Breakout.”  The “hits.”

But there’s so many more jewels littering the package – the run of releases that stretched from “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’” to “Kicker Conspiracy” on disc one; from “Hit the North” to “High Tension Line” on disc two… and, dismissing the theory that no vintage band of note had anything to say in the nineties, from “Touch Sensitive” to “Protein Christmas” on disc three.

Go on, play “Susan vs Youth Club” right now.  It’s genius.  Then track back to “Telephone Thing” and “Popcorn Double Feature.”  The Fall have certainly had their rough spots, and a chronological box like this ruthlessly spotlights them all.  But it also highlights just how consistently brilliant the band have been around the occasional stumble – up there with the collection of their complete Peel sessions that appeared a few years back, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect way of spotlighting all that the Fall have done for us.  And all they continue to do.

(For more Fall, visit…. )

 

The Searchers

Another Night: The Sire Recordings 1979-1981 (2CDs)

Omnivore

Think of the Searchers’ late seventies revival and you will doubtless find yourself remembering old issues of Trouser Press.  More than any other magazine of the era, the late, lamented TP seemed made for the British Invaders’ comeback and, while hit lightning most resolutely did not strike twice, this anthology of two rather glorious albums reminds us that… well, maybe it should have.

Weird thing about the comeback.  The Searchers really didn’t sound that different to how they had in the early days, but not so different from the rest of the period power pop pack, either.  Apart from being better than most of it, that is.  Power pop itself always felt like a desperate struggle too far; an attempt to butter up our post-punk hankerings for something with a little melody by forgetting to actually write a proper song.  You can only go so far with an imbecilic hookline and a chorus that sounds like Kasenetx-Katz.

The Searchers, on the other hand, focussed their attentions on what the rest of the chasing pack missed – songs that bore further listening.  And so their peers were not the bulk of the sallow popsters that otherwise hallmarked that grisly era, so much as the mere one or two that surpassed them… the Records, for a start, which is why “Hearts in Her Eyes” is the first song you’ll hear.

Elsewhere, Bob Dylan, Rockpile, Tom Petty and Big Star are visited for vibes, with the latter’s “September Gurls” given truly the most potent work-out it would enjoy for another forty years, until Anton Barbeau’s so recent remake.  And the whole thing is so much fun you’ll be playing it again before it’s even finished.

Plus, you get seven out-takes for bonus tracks, neat lines for background, and two old LPs to tick off the wants list.  Search no more!

 

Atomic Rooster

Sleeping for Years: The Studio Recordings 1970-1974 (4CDs)

Esoteric/Cherry Red

Go on, admit it.  There was a moment, framed between the UK hits “Tomorrow Night” and “Devil’s Answer,” when Atomic Rooster ranked among the best bands you’d ever heard… even before you heard them.

Anyone whose first album opened with “Friday the 13th”; whose second was titled Death Walks Behind You; and who both looked and sounded like the greatest Hammer horror film you’d ever sneaked into the pictures to see – well, they had to be special, didn’t they?

And those first two albums, they still are.  Formed from the wreckage of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown; Carl Palmer’s last stop before the birth of ELP; the band that did for Hammond organs what Sabbath did for doomladen guitar riffs could and should have been far bigger than they ever actually were … for which, we blame the confusion caused by the hits, a constantly shifting line-up, and the ill-judged decision to have a different singer on each of their original albums; Nick Graham on the first, John Cann on the second, Pete French on the third and, somewhat disastrously, Chris Farlowe on the last.

Made in England, the latter in that sequence, is more or less disposable, just rent-a-riff hard rock with Farlowe wailing unconvincingly over the din.  In Hearing Of… is better, because at least it includes “The Rock,” and the wonderfully titled “A Spoonful of Bromide Helps the Pulse Rate Go Down.”

But it’s that first two that are worth the price of admission, even after all the years… even though moments do sound forced… even though the hits remain the highlight of Rooster’s songwriting prowess.  There’s an atmosphere and an energy quite unlike any other, and if that original line-up of Palmer, French and Vincent Crane (the only member to last the full course) had only been able to stick together for longer, who knows what they would have achieved?

Great liner notes tell the story of why that wasn’t to be, and more; bonus tracks round up the odd remixes that made the American releases and sundry stray singles, and the mini-LP sleeves look almost as good as the original albums ever did.  The sound quality’s great as well .

 

Jeff Lynne’s ELO

Wembley or Bust (2CD)

Columbia

Arguably, Jeff Lynne did more to debase the notion of great seventies pop music than any other performer of the age.  Not because his output was in any way ghastlier than a host of lesser talents; nor because his most successful years coincided with him sporting a beard he’d borrowed from a geography teacher.

He debased pop because, no matter how dynamically he aspired to touch musical perfection, he never quite figured out how to make the records sound as though he wasn’t dynamically aspiring….  And even the most gormless pop pickers will eventually figure out when they’re being taken for mugs.  Great pop music doesn’t have to be simple to be a work of genius.  But it at least needs to sound like it was.  Lynne never figured that out.

Not in the studio, anyway.  Live, ELO were always a more palatable proposition and, forty years on from Out of the Blue – the most gratuitously pompous album ever to shift

10 million units – he was back onstage with a new ELO, and a lot of the same old songs.

And it sounds great.  “Evil Woman,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Can’t Get It Out of my Head,” “Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Telephone Line,” “Turn to Stone,” “Mr Blue Sky”… like ‘em or not, these songs are a part of the mental furniture, instant radio classics before the DJ’s even finished announcing them, and they rain down here so quickly that it’s hard to believe they are even separate songs.  They could… nay, should… have all been one, a symphony of such brilliance that you can almost forgive Lynne for every one of his musical sins.

Almost.

But “Rockaria” is here, and “Don’t Bring Me Down” too; “Xanadu” and “Wild West Hero” – go on, Jeff, you old devil, give us “The Ballad of Horace Wimp” and destroy what’s left of our will to live.  No?  Small mercies.  At its best, Wembley or Bust is a jukebox that will devour every quarter you own.  At its worst, it’ll send you screaming for cover.  And just occasionally (“10538 Overture” and “Roll Over Beethoven” – not at all coincidentally, ELO”s first two hits), you’ll even start to feel sorry for Lynne, because the original ELO really was a great idea.  Which was then sacrificed on the altar of a really bad one.

Gosh, it’s a lot of fun, though….

 

Schizo Fun Addict

Sun Yard (LP)

Fruits de Mer

One of Spin Cycle’s 2013 albums of the year, reissued in such limited quantities that you’ll need to run really fast to get one – and you still might miss out.  Blue vinyl is the default, for members of the FdM club; red, with a terrific glow in the dark cover, for the first folk through the doors at the label’s upcoming birthday party.  And the rest of you must read and weep.

First impressions.  There’s really not enough SFA records out there.  One listen to this, as it nears its fifth anniversary, will imbibe you with such a sense of prepossessing awe that it seems incredible that it is so old.  Bands this scintillating should be chained to the treadmill and forced to grind out new singles every three months and at least two albums a year.  Well, it worked for the Beatles and the Stones.

Second impressions.  Back when Sun Yard was first released, frontman Jet Wintzer told Goldmine it was inspired by “the one true mystery of quantum physics, the unsolved dilemma of wave particle duality and non local photon communication.”  Which makes as much (or as little) sense now as it did at the time. Rather imagine a Happy Mondays rhythm party lurching into Doktor Frankenstein’s most secret lab, the one where he keeps the sonic reducer, and the opening “Awesome Loving” ends way, way too soon.

Third impressions.  Even if you have the original CD release, you need this for the bonus track, a self-styled “analog electro moody intermission” called “Strange Storm,” which is both strange and stormy, the kind of a foreboding noise poem that Fylkingen might have conjured if they wanted to brighten the typical Swedish winter a little.

There’s reprises for a couple of early singles, the lilting, kind of Kirsty MacColl-ish “Dream of the Portugal Keeper” and the brooding “Jericho Son Down,” all western accents over squirming bass lines.  There’s a gorgeous cover of Nada Surf’s “Blizzard of 77,” that sound sunnier than it ever should.   And there’s a “Pterodactyl” that is as chunky as the wildest freakbeat 45 you ever wished you could spend a fortune on.  To counter the effects of “Who Will Be Gold,” which feels like something fat and furry has just driven over your foot.

All of which adds up to an album that was one of Spin Cycle’s best of 2013, and remains one of the best of 2017.  Now can we have a new album, please?

 

Stray 

Fire and Glass – the Pye Recordings 1975-1976 (2CDs)

Esoteric/Cherry Red

Following on from the recent mega box full of Stray’s early albums, this nifty little double completes the story.  Three final discs, beginning with the unmitigated triumph of Stand Up and Be Counted, through the so-so Houdini and onto the somewhat disappointing Hearts of Fire… because, really, the title itself puts you off.

Funny thing.  1975-1976 really were not vintage years for anyone whose career dated back to the early part of the decade.  Today, revisionist history credits (or condemns) punk rock as the cause of so many simultaneous declines, as though one glare from Johnny’s beady little eye caused an entire generation to hurl their prog collections into the bin… but take out the bin liner first, just in case they needed a spare shirt.

But it wasn’t punk.  It wasn’t pub rock.  It was the same thing it always is – their time was done.  Five, six, seven albums in, bands get tired.  Creativity gets creaky.  What was once ambition is now a job.  “All my life,” says the little red hen, “I wanted to be a pop star.”  But now she is one – what does she have to look forward to?  Just the constant struggle to remain on top; the constant need to stay up to date; and the constant hot breath on the back of his neck, as the chasing pack gets closer.  Or is it management running up to hand over someone else’s latest hit and suggest your next record should sound like this?

That’s what killed the prog rock underground, and the mass extinction was underway long before punk rose to replace it.  Although, as albums in their own right, their own universe, all three of the albums here are actually pretty damned good. Stand Up still stands head and shoulders above its successors, of course, but a fair listen conducted without the historical baggage still finds peaks a-plenty on the other two.  Plus, you need this package to complete your Stray collection… at least until the BBC sessions and live recordings start reappearing, and you’ll need to buy them as well.

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