Reviews: Wreckless Eric, The Ru-Jac Story, Hawkwind, Amy Rigby, the Ethiopians, Jim White, Birkin Gainsbourg, Gong Expresso, Six String Drag, Nina Simone, the Uniques

by Dave Thompson

Wreckless Eric

Construction Time & Demolition

(Southern Domestic – CD)

Forty years ago, Wreckless Eric was responsible for two of the greatest singles of all time, not to mention one of the greatest opening lines, as well… “On a convenient seat by the lavatories in the sodium glare.”  Not a bad way to start a career.

Thirty years ago, he was responsible for one of the greatest albums of all time, and The Len Bright Combo Presents The Len Bright Combo by the Len Bright Combo should be embossed on every turntable in the land, from whence it will etch itself into every piece of vinyl you ever try to play.

Twenty years, ten years… five minutes.  The quality hasn’t diminished.  In the world in which we dream of living, Wreckless would be on the cover of Grown-Up Music Digest every month, and Learned Scribes with Thoughtful Beards would be musing on the complex genius of a man who could drape weary nostalgia with chilled resignation, affix it to a Pink Floyd harmony (think “The Great Gig In The Sky” if it was written about an outside toilet),  and then audibly torture the tape to death.

“I wanted the music to sound as though it was demolishing itself,” says the artist, and the Learned Beard shivers with admiration.  Because he succeeds, and there’s the conundrum.  The third constant pounding on the left.

Onwards from its opening paean to hometown Hull, time and time again, Construction Time threatens to big bang into some kind of unabashed lost pop classic… Smile for the permanently quizzical, Rubber Soul in a plastic Mac. The swelling overture behind “They Don’t Mean No Harm.”  The mantric guitar and psychedelic wash that draws you into “Forget Who You Are.”

And every time, Eric does something reckless, and sends your pounding heart skewing off some place else entirely.  Somewhere… damaged.  Construction time and demolition.  Geddit?

“How do you make your records sound like your records sound to me?” he quotes what may be a real life encounter during “Wow & Flutter,” but that’s not really the question that Learned Beard wants to ask.  “Why” is more to the point, and though the answer to that question is written in almost every lyric Wreckless has ever penned, still he can’t resist poking the bear a little later in that same song.  “All your records are shit…. except maybe this one.”

Is that why “Flash” carries the ghost of “Walking on the Surface of the Moon” beneath its barrelhouse piano and the percussion that sounds like a pandemic of insects?

Is that the reason for those moments when the gallumping immediacy of Joe Meek (the producer with whom Wreckless’s sonic concoctions are most frequently aligned) gives way to the studied resonance of George Martin… a man who would never record the sound of a flushing toilet in the hope of communing with Buddy Holly’s ghost…?

And is that why “40 Years” is such a naked slash of regret-stained memory that now we know why our older pop stars so rarely write about their everyday lives and thoughts in real time.  Because it’s not a comfortable place for either the artist to go, or the listener to be taken.  Which, in turn, is the answer to Learned Beard’s question, and the reason why Eric’s never on the cover of Pompous Git Tells You What To Like Weekly.

Wreckless Eric sees the same things that we do, reads them, hears them, experiences them, and then he writes about them.

So, far, so Bobby and Baez.  So far, one more of those Voices that we’re told a Generation so desperately requires, because however will we know what to think about the plight of Humberside wasp enthusiasts if Mr Sting doesn’t first write and tell us?

But Wreckless goes deeper.  A lot deeper.  Even at his most optimistic, there’s the distinct sensation that Hieronymous Bosch is seated offstage, rearranging the tableau to make it just so.  There is no room for ambiguity in Eric’s lyrics, no observation so honest that it can be flinched away from.  And then he sets his seared vistas to the most uplifting, glorious, celestial seismic lurch, because he knows, like he wrote long ago, “it’s just a pop song.”

Then he grins a little grin and says “I’ve made a new record.  Would you like to hear it?”

Learned Beard gazes up, his eyes full of foreboding.  “I can’t.  I have to review the Level 42 box set first.”

 

Something Got A Hold On Me: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume One 

Get Right: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume Two

Finally Together: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume Three

Changes: The Ru-Jac Records Story Volume Four

(Ru-Jac/Omnivore – four CDs)

It should be a box set, the four discs all together, with a book that compiles the individual booklets, and glitters from the shelves like the jewel it would be.  As it is, four separate CDs do the job just as well, just a little less glamorously than they deserve.

For, if there is one word that can be applied to the Ru-Jac label, as it radiated out over the Baltimore soul scene of the sixties (and thereafter, too – are there more volumes coming?), it’s glamour.

No, it never earned the commercial cachet of Motown or Stax, or the Philly Soul enclave.   You rarely hear its music on whatever passes for an oldies station these days.  The Fruitland Harmonizers will never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But all of that is irrelevant.  “The most extensive singles catalog of any Maryland imprint” probably isn’t the most eye-popping claim to fame to slap on the front of the booklets.  But, across the 100 tracks that spread across these discs, a chronological recounting of the label’s most every release (no LPs, just bang-bang-bang with the 45s), Ru-Jac sparkles with all the greatness of its better-heeled contemporaries.

Was there a definable Ru-Jac sound?  No more than any other soul/R&B label of the era.  Gene & Eddie, Brenda Jones, Arthur Conley, Jessie Crawford and Winfield Parker probably rank as the biggest “names’ on the roster (G&E, Conley and Parker have their own individual discs also available in the series), so draw your own conclusions from there.

Rather, Ru-Jac mirrored the national development of the music as it moved through the decade, from a distinctly local basis – Maryland and, later, DC, were the company’s happiest hunting grounds, and it is that focus that marks out the label’s uniqueness.  Other cities had other musical preoccupations, but Ru-Jac had no interest in aping them.  The result is a unique portrait of a time and place – and, equally crucially, a collector’s paradise.

The sound quality is stellar.  A few master tapes have been lost, forcing the producers to work from original 45s, but it is scarcely noticeable.  Likewise, many of the old session tapes went walkabout long ago, but where they were available, previously unissued material has been littered through the box, even on those occasions when the artist’s very name has been lost.  The accompanying booklet tells the story with a genuine sense of wonder and respect, and the photos are fabulous.

In fact, the only complaint would be the lack of a full discographical accounting of the label, although that would probably demand a box set of its own.  Which, funnily enough, is where we came in.

 

Hawkwind

The Emergency Broadcast Years 1994-1997

(Atomhenge/Cherry Red – 5 CDs)

Released twenty years on from what older fans might consider the band’s last true peak (Quark and company), but themselves more than twenty years old today, the four albums in this clamshell box shine a remarkable light on the state of Hawkwind during an era which history doesn’t always recall with more than a line or two.

And it reveals, as is so often the case, that history can be a right silly billy sometimes.

The main weight here comes courtesy of the two live albums The Business Trip Live and Love in Space, and while you’d never mistake either for an unheard passage of Space Ritual… why would you want to?  Hawkwind’s grasp of and, more importantly, understanding of late eighties rave culture as it bled into nineties electro-and-more might have struck the old faithful as somehow misaligned, but the rearrangements that these new pastures wrought upon the classics are themselves often as enjoyable as the originals.

“Quark, Strangeness and Charm” (from The Business Trip) is restyled as an anthemic ballad; “Assassins,” as they now titled “Hassan I Sabbah,” (Love in Space) becomes the chill-out room from hell.  And besides, the band can drive when they want to – is this the definitive in-concert “The Right Stuff”?  Maybe.  It’s certainly the toughest “Death Trap,” Oh, and yes, “Silver Machine” is here.

The studio albums, too, rise out of the background noise to which they are traditionally confined by the annals.  Alien 4 (1995) is awash with textures and effects, through which the songs converge like multi-hued weather systems; Distant Horizons is crunchier, more organic, but no less evocative – and the fuzzy crunch of “Waimea Canyon Drive” matches anything this era of the band accomplished elsewhere.

The albums aren’t perfect, and Ron Tree’s showily gymnastic vocals certainly take some getting used to.  But the overall package both demands your attention, and has fun with it once it gets it.  Do not resist.

 

Amy Rigby

The Old Guys

(Southern Domestic – CD)

As bass rumbles go, and song titles too, “From philiproth@gmail to rzimmerman@aol.com”  has a helluva lot going for it, even before the music starts.  And once it does, it has even more.

Rigby’s first solo album in a dozen years, it says here, but the nature of time is such that twelve years pass in the blinking of an eye, and twenty, as well.  “Are We Still There Yet” talks old times with an old acquaintance – “when you’re around, it’s like the nineties all over again,” and they still can’t decide between CDs and cassettes.

Reflection does flavor the album, but there’s no sense of loss here… except for that song, maybe.  To a lot of would-be listeners, after all, Rigby herself is a reminder of the decade her music helped shape.  But across the album as a whole, she is smarter, sharper, and maybe even more melodic than she was way back when, when mod housewives kept diaries and danced with Joey Ramone.  And she revels in the freedom that not having to be that Amy Rigby allows her.

Largely acoustic (that bass blurge notwithstanding) The Old Guys is liquid and livid in equal parts. “Back from Amarillo” is pure, “Bob” is even purer.  But “Playing Pittsburgh is pointed, and “Leslie” is what the Shangri-Las would sound like if somebody had that same idea today, and it hadn’t been done before.  And then there’s “New Sheriff,” which feels like it could have been recorded in the shower-stall with a one-woman band playing everything at once.  There’s only a handful of outright rockers on The Old Guys, but “New Sheriff” remedies any deficit you can think of.

Rigby’s career has taken her to a ton of different places, and it’d be fun to play join the dots with them – how she moved from one of Richard Hell’s favorite bands to cutting Robert Christgau’s “concept album of the year”; how she’s written for Ronnie Spector, and recorded with Wreckless Eric (her husband, and The Old Guys’ producer); how she’s toured with the Indigo Girls and Urge Overkill, too.

Entertaining, but ultimately pointless.  The Old Guys is a whole new fresh start with the past maps still intact, and if her next tour eschews all the oldies and just airs this album from start to finish, you should thank her.  To paraphrase the closing “One Off”… there’ll never be another her.

 

The Ethiopians

Reggae Power/Woman Capture Man

(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red – CD)

Two albums, released back to back in the UK in 1969-1970, capture Leonard Dillon and co at something approaching the peak of their powers.  True, the hit “Train to Skaville” is not among the contents, nor included among the bonus tracks that pack the CD to breaking point.  But that is scarcely a drawback… if you don’t already have it on a few dozen other collections and compilations, what do you do with your ears?

Originally issued to coincide with the Ethiopians’ 1969 UK tour (and featuring future The Satanic Rites of Dracula movie star Pauline Peart on the cover), Reggae Power celebrated the Ethiopians’ newly consummated partnership with producer JJ Johnson, one of rocksteady’s most resolute practitioners, and his JJ All Stars backing band – certainly one of Jamaica’s most dynamic period combos.  (A couple of tracks on Reggae Power showcase the All Stars alone.)

The resultant combination is explosive. Both albums overflow with tightly wrought would-be classics… “Everything Crash,” “What a Fire,” “Feel the Spirit,” the lurching proto-roots of “One” and “Hong Kong Flu,” all from Reggae Power were released as singles, and if Woman Capture Man’s title track (and the irresistible “Things a Get Bad to Worse”)  is that set’s best-remembered number, that is not to decry this album’s similar strength.

Only the repetition of three songs from its predecessor spoiled the party at the time – for obvious reasons, they’re not repeated here, thus freeing up space for seven bonus tracks culled from other JJ-period 45s.  The result is a one of the most compulsive reggae reissues of recent years.

 

Jim White

Waffles, Triangles & Jesus

(Plaptk Recordings – CD)

“Playing guitars, playing guitars, the whole damn world is playing guitars.”  Thus declares Jim White and what he calls “a cast of thousands of surly male vocalists,” because yes indeed, they are.

What a wonderfully weird little album this is.  Jim White’s life and career deserves a Wikipedia entry the size of Connecticut, and if you’ve followed his country-inflected muse thus far, you’ll already have a notion of what you’ll find here – introspective melancholy, looking back through a half-empty glass, and softly, gently worded even if the slides and banjos can get a little rambunctious in places.  Moments might remind you of something you heard in the seventies.

But always, there’s that sense that what “Playing Guitars’ brought into the room has never gone away. That it’s still lurking there waiting to leap out and grab you, tying your bootlaces together while you whirl around the room to the joyous “Silver Threads.” Or maybe it will tap rhythmically on your shoulder as “Wash Away A World” draws a mustache on a picture of the late sixties Dylan.

And then there’s “ET Bass At Last Finds the Woman of his Dreams,” which is as call-and-response yodel-worthy as its title demands, and has another of those choruses that feel like they’ve been tattooed onto your tonsils. All of which comes together with heart-stirring drama on the closing “Sweet Bird of Mystery,” which opens with a haunting violin and background-noise instrumental, and warns, “by the time you hear this, I’ll be wearing store-bought teeth.”  It doesn’t sound like it’s joking, either.

Yes, wonderfully weird and packed with so many punches that you could drop it into a time capsule and still be surprised by what creeps out.  And bellows “playing guitars” in your ear.

Oh damn. Here we go again.

 

Birkin Gainsbourg

Le Symphonique

(Parlophone – 2CD, 1 DVD)

A glorious package, a sensational vision.  Le Symphonique is exactly what you would hope it is, a full orchestral reimagining of the Serge Gainsbourg catalog (or, at least, a bit of it), fronted by the still hesitant, fragile and gorgeous vocals of Jane Birkin, arranged by Japanese composer Nobuyuki Nakajima, and commissioned by the FrancoFolies Festival of Quebec; the Via Japan live disc captures the two year tour that Birkin and Nakajima ignited in 2011.  And there’s a DVD of photos from Birkin’s personal album.

The symphony is the key, both re-envisioning Gainsbourg’s original work and, in a way, returning it to its source – Birkin herself has singled out such influences as Brahms (“for ‘Baby Alone In Babylon’”) Chopin (“Jane B”) and Grieg (“Lost Song’), and she’s not wrong.  But it’s to Nakajima’s credit that he does not dwell on these archetypes, instead conjuring a vista that adheres as exquisitely to Gainsbourg’s own self as Birkin’s voice is now the only imaginable accompaniment for his words.

Are there are moments that seem ridiculously overblown?  Of course there are.  Can it get a little wearing in places?  Certainly.  And would we accept such treatment for other icons of the age… well, we have in the past, as that teetering pile of A Symphonic Tribute to Billy Childish reminds us, although common sense would prevail in the end.

Le Symphonique works, however, and it works well; and, even if it didn’t, the comparatively stripped-down live disc – largely comprising an entirely different repertoire of songs – is worth the price of admission in its own right.

 

Gong Expresso

Decadence

(Gong Expresso – CD)

The historical successor to Pierre Moerlen’s jazz-rock extension of the original Gong vision, Gong Expresso sees a quartet of Francois Causse, Benoit Moerlen, Hansford Rowe and Julien Sandiford set out once more for fusion flavored points unknown.  With – given both the title band’s pedigree and the involvement of Hansford and his HRIII regular Sandiford – what you might call the expected results.

Eight pieces fidget around the edges of what feels like improvisation, but gently.  There’s little of the caustic shock of, say Gazeuse, in play, with “Toumani” in particular a lovely drift of sound that could easily have lived more than the four minutes it’s offered here.

Of course, it’s all a long way from the mothership’s magic, and short attention spans will be advised to look elsewhere for their jollies.  But left to play itself through, it’s a fine reminder that the Gong family tree has branches for every occasion.

 

Six String Drag

High Hat

(Schoolkids Records – vinyl, CD)

A twentieth anniversary (ouch) reissue for one of alt-country’s cornerstone albums, and still one of the punchiest in the pouch.

From the opening “Bottle of Blues,” through to the bonus inclusion of “Lorene” at the end, High Hat defies the decades that have elapsed since its release; defies, too, memories of the band’s dissolution just a year or so after its release.  Because it all sounds so fresh, so promising, so “bring on the future now.”

With utterly contagious glee, its fifteen tracks swagger down the dirt track with a bottle in each fist, maybe casting a glance towards what was then termed “the competition” (Whiskeytown, the Bottle Rockets, Old 97 etc), but it’s also a raucous affair of its own invention, more-or-less bursting with high-kicking classics.  In other words – it’s a lot of fun.  And with a new album on the horizon from the (partially) reformed Six Stringers, we’ll probably be hearing a lot more of them soon.  This is where it began

 

Nina Simone

Mood Indigo – The Complete Bethlehem Singles

(BMG – CD, vinyl)

Arriving, of course, with a sticker proclaiming Simone’s (much overdue) induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this is the sound of Simone at the outset of her career – her debut album, too, was a Bethlehem release, and its full eleven track glory is repeated here, together with three other period recordings.

Of course the focus is on the original mono 45s rather than the more familiar LP vista, and the key to this collection is just how authentic it sounds. Any remastering or digital doohickeyness that might have been applied to the original sound was evidently performed with a great deal more sensitivity than we normally suffer.

Twiddle the tone knob just right, and Mood Indigo could easily be blaring out of your favorite vintage record player – a taste of nirvana that far too few modern releases even consider aspiring to.

Which is important because it makes you understand (if you did not already realize) just what a force Simone was when she first dropped into earshot sixty years ago.  And you know, too, that an hour with this (beautifully packaged) collection is worth a lifetime spent suffering the anemic mewlings of her fellow Hall of Fame inductees.

 

The Uniques

Absolutely The…

(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red – CD)

The band that introduced us to the immeasurable talents of Slim Smith (not to mention Roy Shirley and Lloyd Charmers!), the Uniques – like the Ethiopians above – were one of the key vocal trios of mid-late sixties Jamaica, blithely skimming the shift from ska to rocksteady by conjuring a sound that was pure dance floor heaven.

Absolutely… was Britain’s first long-playing taste of the Uniques, released in 1968 by which time Shirley was long gone, and Smith and Charmers were already enjoying solo careers.  But the band continued on around their other activites, at least for another year or so, with Charmers also acting as their producer for much of the time.  All but three of the tracks on the original album were overseen by him; and all but one of the dozen bonus tracks too (Bunny Lee handled the overspill), and it was this sense of self-containment that gave such unity to the Uniques’ sound.

Their performances across “My Conversation,” “Just a Mirage,” “Forever,” “Run Come” and, best of all, their heavenly take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” are achingly gorgeous, while a handful of dips into Charmers’ solo work (most notably “Follow This Sound”) do indeed follow the group’s lead.

As is so often the case, much of this material will be familiar from the many… some might say too many… compilations that have been drawn from Jamaica’s sixties catalog.  But there is something magical about hearing the old albums – which, let’s face it, are very seldom seen today – recompiled and reissued, exactly as they were at the time.

No matter, even, that the bands themselves had little to do with the creation; that their UK label, Trojan, simply compiled them from the tapes that were flown over from Kingston.  Albums like Absolutely are nevertheless a vital part of the two countries’ shared musical history, and for anybody who was buying them at the time, an intrinsic part of growing up, too.

 

 

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