Reviews: Tiddlywinks, Martin Gordon, Curved Air, Alison O’Donnell, Sex Clark Five, Vespero, Phil Rambow, Justin Hinds, Traffic



(Mega Dodo)

With every penny destined for Save the Children, Tiddlywinks would probably be worth your attention whatever was included.  That it also serves as both a primer to some of the most remarkable bands to hover around the Mega Dodo/Fruits de Mer axis, and to some of the most prevalent memories of everyone’s childhood is simply a bonus you cannot resist.

Beautify Junkyards, Us and Them, Paolo Sala, Octopus Syng, Icarus Peel, Mordecai Smith, Sky Picnic and the Luck of Eden Hall highlight the contributors in terms of immediate name recognition, but really there isn’t a duff track in sight.

Whether it’s Richard Bone transforming “Here We Go Looby Loo” into a seething slice of freakbeat Ghost Box or the Telephones recounting the tale of Mary’s little lamb; Paisley Sky leading us around a super-psyched mulberry bush or the Hare and the Moon nudging Michael Warren towards a suitably scarified Land of Nod, thirteen classic children’s songs are replayed with varying degrees of affection, reflection and even manic malice – Mordecai Smyth’s “Oranges and Lemons” feels positively sinister, a cacophonic catfight between the bells of old London and, by the time, the chopper comes to chop off your head , it’s less a nursery rhyme than it is an hitherto undisclosed out-take from Pink Floyd’s “Scream Your Last Scream” session.

Floyd are invoked again via Us and Them’s conjoining of “Julia Dream” with “All the Pretty Little Horses” – in its original form, a super-scarce FdM 45, but here rerecorded and, if it’s even possible, even more beautifully eerie than it was last time around.

Sky Picnic’s “Jack and Jill” is a slab of riff-ridden guitar and echo soup, while Eden Hall link with Razaorhouse’s Mark Panick to translate “One for Sorrow” into a slow-burning drone dripping drama.  And Beautify Junkyard’s “The Miller’s Song” is every early seventies British TV memory you’ve ever filed away as kids’ stuff disguised as Belle and Sebastian trying their hands at wyrd folk.  And so on and so forth across an album that is so much joyful fun that any children in your own house probably shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of it.  They wouldn’t understand.


Martin Gordon

Thanks for all the Fish (CD)

(Radiant Future)

If rock’n’roll history had not invented Martin Gordon, we would have to acknowledge his existence as something more than a bass playing, joke telling, one man singer-songwriting machine with a gift for writing wry lyrics about anything that comes to mind.

Puffins, Greek menus, Kodak Instamatics… forty years on from whichever anniversaries we’re supposed to be celebrating this year, Gordon simply marches on marching on, with what might be his most deliciously unhinged solo album yet, at the same time as it’s one of his most lyrically focused.  Think of your favorite op-ed column, if it was hijacked by someone who rhymes “circle” with “Mrs Merkel,”  and you’ll be close.

The mood of the music is unadulterated twisted punky poppy, into which a mystifying fascination with polka is despatched to wrestle with howling guitars, wailing melodica and a vocal that sounds like it lives beneath an underpass, and mutters peculiar things about cuckoo clocks to passing social workers.

It’s not the most melodic album Gordon has ever produced, almost as if he took a listen back to his last outing, celebrating Gilbert and Sullivan, and decided to take the opposite turn entirely.  Not so much recorded as spray-painted on a wall; less mixed than stirred, and less sung than slurred, it’s the kind of album you feel you should listen to while squeezing spots or delousing your toothbrush.

But it’s extraordinarily catchy, as is Gordon’s wont, just one long basketful of hooks, and there’s even a sainted oldie to be found lurking in the midst of things, as Radio Stars’ “Beast of Barnsley” is rerouted to the capital of Turkey.  It’s hard to shake the feeling, though, that it isn’t an album to leave in your car overnight.  Not unless you want to wake up tomorrow and find it’s made off with your wheels.


Curved Air

Airconditioning (2CDs)

Air Cut (CD)

Eclectic/Cherry Red

Finally.  We’ve waited a long time for someone to take a serious peek inside the Curved Air catalog; and a long time, too, for what was truly one of the early 1970s’ most innovative bands to receive the accolades they so richly deserve.  But with Eclectic apparently gearing up to restore the Air’s entire body of work to the racks, the only downside is that one of their lesser albums, Air Cut, (1973) should march out alongside their debut (1970)… meaning we still have the real meat to look forward to.  Hurrah.

The archive is not overly generous.  Bonus tracks for Airconditioning round up one out-take, two alternate takes and both sides of a single, plus half a dozen BBC cuts that long-time listeners will have picked up twenty-plus years ago.  Add-ons for Air Cut number none.

But listening through the albums as a whole is rewarding, with the debut reminding us just how far out on a limb the original Curved Air positioned themselves. Sonja Kristina certainly possessed one of the voices of the age, while bandmates Francis Monkman and Darryl Way were effectively lead instrumentalists in their own right… Monkman also handled the remastering, and what he describes as “some judicious tweaking” has resulted in “the album I had always hoped [it] would be.”

It certainly sounds good; “It Happens Today” tears itself from the opening grooves, a duet for voice and symphony, and as we plunge deeper into the disc… “Screw,” “Vivaldi” (with and without cannons) “Situations” and the mighty “Propositions”… Curved Air hang suddenly revealed as possibly the most inventive of all the bands that clashed rock with the classics, by virtue of not forcing either into the arms of the other.  This was fusion in its purest sense, and across the two albums that followed (Second Album and Phantasmagoria), the band only improved upon the recipe.

But of course it had to end and, while Kristina and third album bassist Mike Wedgwood lost little time in convening a new line-up, Air Cut was effectively the work of a wholly different band, working to wholly different parameters.  Seventeen-year-old Eddie Jobson was a fine sonic substitute for Way, but would never prove his equal in terms of invention, and though Air Cut is a fine album, it was never a fine Curved Air album.  Too rock, too straightforward, too much time spent waiting for the shackles to be removed.

But don’t listen to me.  It has, according to the various band members, gained in stature since then, with Kristina adamant that “now there are a lot of people who name it as their favorite Curved Air album.”   And now’s our chance to put that to the test.


Alison O’Donnell

The Road We Know/An Empire In Its Glory (45)

(Mega Dodo)

A limited edition adjunct to O’Donnell’s so-magnificent album of a few months back (review here), “The Road We Know” sensibly picks one of the most “conventional” songs for single-shaped stardom, at the same time as we should all be aware that nothing about O’Donnell’s work is, in any way, what we would normally term thusly.  And, if you doubt that, flip it over and listen to “An Empire In Its Glory.”

Stark and striking on one side; sweetly melodic, almost tremulous on the other, it’s the kind of single that you pull out of the pile, and then marvel that anyone still makes music this beautiful.  Well, they do and here she is.


Sex Clark Five

Ghost Brigade: A Strum and Drum Opera (CD)

(Records to Russia)

There is a story here, as you would expect from an opera.  It’s bizarre, as you’d expect from the Five, and it’s jolly loud as well.  But, again, you’d not only expect that, you’d demand it.

Particularly when you’re confronted with a cast of characters that includes God, a psychiatrist, a war monger, a medieval priest, a burning church and the titular Ghost Brigade, all ranged around and against the veritable Brad and Janet forms of Raymond and Christabel.

Songs are short.  Two minutes is the average, three is an epic, and forty-odd seconds are nothing to be sniffed at, either.  And perhaps (and it’s a big “perhaps”) the album does sacrifice a smidgeon of the Sex Clarks’ customary instinctive drive and clatter for the sake of the concept. But it would be a fair trade if they did.  In fact, you come out the other side (twenty-three songs later) wondering why more concept albums don’t trim the fat and cut to the chase. If the story’s so good that it has to be sung, why clog it with interminable Mellotron solos?

Besides, if you know the Sex Clark Five of old, you’ll also have a good idea how much you’ll like this album.  If you don’t, however, maybe don’t start with this one… track back a few albums and then make your way forward.  You’ll still meet the Ghost Brigade in the end, but a little background color will certainly brighten your day.



Shun-Shir (LP)

(Tomzonen Records)

Utterly breathtaking.  Shun-Shir is something like the seventeenth album from Astrakhan’s Vespero, and every single time they step out, it’s as if you’ve never heard them before, and wind up staring at the speakers in utter disbelief.

Imagine… interstellar gypsy rave club dance rock.  Imagine the Third Ear Band jamming with the Happy Mondays, while the Orb lob odd things into the mix.  Imagine headphones that fill the entire house, intimacy spilling out across every corner of each room.

Largely instrumental and exquisitely paced, its five tracks devour forty minutes and, if the titles – “Isidore’s Dance,” “Gaya’s Dance,” “Gull’s Dance” – possibly set your thought-train rolling in one direction, then remember that’s only the launch pad.  One idea from Vespero is worth half a dozen from a lot of other bands, and if the first named piece feels like amped-up Frippertronics layered over a jazz rock shuffle, that’s merely how it lures you in.  No sooner do you touch down on one thought than Vespero transport you to another… and the percussion never lets up.

Again, utterly breathtaking.  You need this record now.


Phil Rambow

Love Rock (CD EP)

(RDJ Recordings)

The latest in an ever-lengthening sequence of EPs from the great Phil Rambow seems determined to accomplish just one thing. Drop you on the dance floor of a grimy English tavern, circa 1975, in the presence of the greatest Pub Rock band you never saw.

It’s basic, thumping, dirty rock’n’roll.  No cunning nuance, no sweet irony, no arch eyebrow raised to Nick Lowe as he watches from the bar.  This is Rambow as he never really was at the time, because the Winkies – the band of whom he might be writing – packed all those things and more.

Which in turns means, if you’re standing there watching with a pint in your hand, Rambow is standing right next to you, listening to a singer whose accent touches wild Americana; whose band like the Brinsleys, but they like Van Morrison more; and who doesn’t feel even slightly self-conscious singing about rock’n’roll, love, and his love of rock’n’roll. Which itself is nuanced, ironic and arch, if you think about it, but boy, does it work.

Especially when you reach “The Modern Age,” the fourth and final cut here, and you know this will be the band’s first single, early into 1976, with the first glimmers of something harder and harsher rolling onto the musical scene.  Right now, it’s Graham Parker… the same papers Rambow sings about in “I Sold My Soul to Rock’n’Roll” are suddenly full of the guy, and the vocals even sound like they’re wearing his shades.  But in a few months time, punk rock will start elbowing everyone out the way, and history is adamant on one thing.  Only the strong will survive.

The fact that Rambow is still making such marvelous records forty years after the fact lets you know which side he falls on.


Justin Hinds and the Dominoes

From Jamaica with Reggae (CD)

(Doctor Bird/Cherry Red)

Justin Hinds

Travel With Love (CD)

Know Jah Better (CD)


You wait ages for a Justin Hinds album, and then three come along at once.  One of the most vital, not to mention distinctive, of all the early ska-era vocalists (the legendary “Carry Go Bring Come” dates back to 1963), who in turn passed through all the music’s subsequent convolutions without once losing his original charm and drive, Hinds is heard here spread across three decades worth of work.  And not once does he drop the ball.

From Jamaica with Reggae, reawakening and appending a collection first released in the mid-1970s, is the classic Hinds, a dozen tracks (and then fourteen more) that effectively trace him through his first decade-plus of work.  “Carry Go Bring Some” is the inevitable opener, and it’s still as contagious as it ever was; “Here I Stand” (1966), “Drink Milk” (1969), “Sinners” (1971) and “On the Last Day” (1976) all stand as milestones in the story that unfolds from there; while a generous heaping of bonus tracks not only fill the gaps in between, they continue the story into 1978.  Which means “Rig Ma Roe Game” can leap out of 1977 as a truly effervescent slab of rootsy wonder that was one of the reggae highlights of a year that was littered with the things.  (And make us yearn for a reissue of what was then his latest album, 1976’s Jezebel.)

Travel With Love captures Hinds a few years on, recording for the Nighthawk label in the early 1980s, sequestered in Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios with the Wailers in full flight behind him.  Its classic status has never been downplayed – it truly is one of the jewels of period roots, and this reissue only reinforces that with the bonus addition of period singles and a virtual alternate version of the parent LP, in the form of unissued versions and dubs.  In fact, the only downside to the entire package is the booklet’s insistence on retelling the story of Hinds’ discovery, two decades previous, as opposed to the tale of this remarkable rebirth.

A second Nighthawk album was planned, but it would be 1992 before it appeared, as the heavily reworked and remixed Know Jah Better – a ragtag assemblage of cuts that arrived with no recording dates and little clue, therefore, as to when it all actually dated from.And, annoyingly, the liners here add nothing to our knowledge, despite being written by Nighthawk’s own Leroy Jodie Pierson.

It was still a goody, though, and of course it would be the last major solo release of Hinds’ life (he passed away in 2008, shortly after recording the second album with Wingless Angels).  But it doesn’t hang together like its predecessor – indeed, despite its release as a separate package, it feels more like an extension of Travel With Love’s bonus material, and maybe that’s how we should regard it.

Nevertheless, none can fault Omnivore for reissuing it today, just as one cannot help but celebrate the veritable plethora of Hinds hits that just landed in our laps.  Now, if only someone would look into getting everything else on the shelves as well.



Where The Poppies Grow: 1967 Historic Radio Sessions (CD)

(Vogon/Mega Dodo)

For all the deathless perfection of their earliest recordings, it is often said that if you never heard the original Traffic in concert, you never really heard them at all.  That may or may not be true, but this disc goes a long way towards agreeing.  Two late 1967 BBC sessions and, from the same period, a Swedish concert broadcast capture the band in the first flush of chart success, and what we lose in studio perfection is effortlessly remedied by the sheer expanse of sound and invention.

“Feelin’ Good” expands to nine minutes, “Dear Mr Fantasy” to seven plus, even “Hole in my Shoe” reaches out towards six, and again, if the sound quality leaves the ears feeling just a little foggy, then maybe that forces you to pay even more attention the music.  Which, without exception, is spectacular enough to render this a key document of band and era alike.

The Beeb sessions are generally brighter, if still a little crunchy, and arrive complete with period DJ voice-overs, to add an extra dash of authenticity to the proceedings.  There was something about Brian Matthews’ voice and intonation that screams “here and now” at the modern listener, and across nine tracks, all but three songs from Dear Mr Fantasy are revisited in dynamic “there and then” style.  It was a remarkable debut at the time.  Live… yes.  It really was a little better.

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