New Releases – Phil Rambow, Palace of Swords, Brian James, Philip Jeays, the Smoke

BJ_V1601 x 601-508x508Brian James

The Guitar That Dripped Blood

(Easy Action EARS 068)

Welcome to the 1971 show.

Yeah, you remember 1971.  The MC5 were at their noisiest, the Pink Fairies were at their greatest; and, between those two poles, there existed a mass of white noise whose descendants would round up everything from the Dolls to Motorhead, punk rock to speed metal, and a thousand other meaningless terms besides.  Basically, anyone who turns the volume up to eleven, crams the amps with unfiltered cigarettes and gut-rot Jack Daniels, and doesn’t care a hoot for how often the neighbors complain… they’re in there somewhere.

Ex-Damned, Lords of the New Church, Brian James’s Brains, the Dripping Lips and more, Brian James stepped into that arena in 1976, after a trial run with the legendary Bastard, and he hasn’t changed his attitude once since then.  And why should he?  Already essentially the last man standing when it comes to remembering what gutter-led guitar rock ought to sound like, maybe he did become sidelined as his chosen art form descended into that sea of mordant sub-metal obesity that the public liked to think of as subversive rock’n’roll in the eighties and early nineties.

But long after the last gun jammed and blew off its user’s fingers, and the final rose mumbled “screw this for a game of skittles, I’m going home,” James ear for nail-your-eyeball riffs and jerk-your-legs off rhythms just kept on keeping on, and The Guitar That Dripped Blood, his latest solo album, is the consequence.

It’s a raucous son-of-a-misbegotten beast, the sound of juvenile delinquency lived out long beyond its traditional boundaries, and honed to a knife edge that makes West Side Story look like a Scout club meeting.  All James’s traditional musical motifs are here, the guitar that chars, the lyrics that chill, the overall sheen that grabs you by the throat and then pins you to the wall by sheer force of personality.  “Recorded loud for playing louder,” is what it says on the sleeve, and a revolving door of guests and sidemen have no option but to turn up accordingly.

Favorite cuts?  All of them, because this isn’t an album for cherrypicking.  It’s one for putting on, and getting on with all the nasty little habits that you hold dearest to your heart.  It’s a bunch of sweeties in search of space, a dead electric citizen getting young, loud and snotty, the Kings of Speed on a human being lawnmower.  It’s the Deviants rewriting Raw Power in a sewer.

It’s brilliant.

Buy it here.

cd_the_wildest_walkPhilip Jeays

The Widest Walk – the Songs of Philip Jeays Volume 1

(Ditton Pye 1007)

Lazily, we could describe Philip Jeays as the closest thing to a modern Jacques Brel that this world has ever seen.  Confoundingly, we could add Jake Thackray to the brew.  And annoyingly, we could leave it at that, aware that anyone who doesn’t know those names is no more enlightened now than they were before we started.

So we begin again, by celebrating the fact that the man’s eighth album in sixteen years, and first since 2012, is again a spellbinding waltz through the dark side of chanson, beautiful in that brutal manner which makes the most sense at three in the morning, when you’ve just awoken from a disquieting dream, and you need something to lull you back to morbidity.

The ten songs themselves are all old friends – The Wildest Walk is Jeays ranging back through the albums that preceded it, and pulling out the songs that he felt required a brand new canvas; jewels that may not have been polished sufficiently before being sent out into the world first time round.  So, “October,” “Geoff,” “Say You Love Me,” “London,” “Beachy Head”… arguably, all our favorites from a catalog that positively bristles with gems, reborn with a consistency and singularity of vision that allows each to soak a little deeper into your consciousness, while never detracting from the individuality that made them so special in the first place.

Certainly there are few writers active today who can invoke the human condition so firmly as Jeays has devoted his career to doing. “The Great War” alone proves that, as you’ll see when you play it alongside any of the tributes to the conflict that the calendar is now thrusting upon us… distant memory unearths a Richard Digance song that took an equally sideways look at the carnage, but even that couldn’t capture the sheer pathos of an opening line that declares “it was a great war, the Great War, the greatest war there’s ever been.”

Elsewhere, “Ed is at the Ritz” spins fin de seicle Paris cafe society into a world not so unlike our own, and bristles with imagery that drops new mien into “bohemian,” while “Madame” reverses that equation with its portrait of a nouveau riche biche who’s dressed not so much to kill but be culled.  “When I talk of Puccini, she talks of Lloyd Webber.”   Yeah, you know her.

Which may be why Jeays is sometimes described as an “acquired taste”… because, like Brel and Thackray, Georges Brassens and maybe Leonard Cohen, his observations are often so deep and darkly personal that listening can make your flesh prickle uncomfortably, and you look at your address book in a whole different light.  Is it really a list of your friends and acquaintances?  Or is it the raw source material from which Jeays is writing his songs?

And, if that is the case, then who’s to say he’s not treating those same friends’ address books in the same way?

“Is this a mirror I see before me?”

Buy it here

CH28itOWsAAk9s8Palace of Swords

La Belle Époque (2010-2014)

(limited edition cassette only)

Across the past five years, Scotland’s Palace of Swords have been responsible for some of the most intriguing electronic soundscapes of the age, dark vignettes of imagery and suggestion redolent, in part, of founder Peter L’s stated love of Nico, Satie and Neu (with some Kenneth Anger soundtracks thrown in for menacing measure), but also fiercely independent.

Think the bits of Tangerine Dream that you would actually refer to as memorable music, as opposed to the swathes that are forgotten wallpaper; clash it with the kind of themes that all great suspense movies ought to have, but are usually too self-consciously groovy to muster; and then divorce everything from anything you might already have thought of, and you’ll be on at least an approximate leyline.

Ten tracks here highlight a selection of cuts from the career-so-far, with titles like “The Black Lodge Will Rise Again,” “Live at the Aberdeen Witch Trials 1597” and “Echoes from a Distant Star” conveying the moods that the music evokes; uncommon beauty steeped in subtle menace and, throughout, the kind of undertones that ensure you keep the lights on.

Just forty copies of the cassette were produced, and most of them are probably gone already.  The link below points you towards all the purchases you could desire – plus, if you pick up all of the regular albums, you won’t need this one at all.

It’s nice to have, though….

Buy it here

s993620906317102866_p413_i1_w1600The Smoke

My Friend Jack Eats Sugar Lumps / An Anthology

(Morgan Blue Town MBTCD 008)

Record collecting used to be so easy.  Psychedelic record collecting, especially.

Years ago, back when the world was young and rock’n’roll music was still something less than a succession of garishly branded cyphers designed to hypnotize your will away, music journalist Charles Shaar Murray gifted readers of the New Musical Express with a consumers guide to psych; a list of two LPs (or one C90)’s worth of period, ’67-70, singles that together built up into a glowing portrait of everything that was beautiful about that particular age.  Because, even from a distance of barely six years, it felt like a different world.

Yeah, we’re talking the mid-1970s here, so you have to remember, archive-scouring was still a relatively untried art at the time.  Nuggets was out there, of course; Decca’s Hard Up Heroes assemblage of seventies superstars in their sixties rags; and the Polydor group was just getting started on a series of Rock Flashback comps that would round up a couple of albums worth of catalog rarities.

But the fairground filled with every-effing-note that every band of the era ever committed to tape in which we can now immerse ourselves… that was still a dream that awaited dreaming.  So, while Murray’s evocation of the era feels almost simple-minded today, at the time it was the height of esoteric crate-digging.  More than that, it might even have been the spark that lit the blue touchpaper of the subsequent explosion of reissues and repackagings that led us to today.

You can find Murray’s original lists at rocksbackpages.com, but heading off the first of them, preaching to a readership for whom old David Bowie and Tyrannosaurus Rex was about as deep into psych as their explorations had taken them… ahead of Tomorrow, Pink Floyd and the Broughtons, Dantalian’s Chariot, Deep Purple and Love Sculpture… a band called the Smoke.  Who, even if you remembered every record you heard on the radio in 1967,would probably have passed you by.  Because “My Friend Jack” wasn’t simply banned by the BBC.  It was, to paraphrase Animal House, double-secret banned.

Why?  Because Jack, as we are all well aware now, but had no way of knowing at the time, had a most peculiar habit.  He ate sugar lumps.

But he wasn’t a horse.

Today, with LSD scarcely even registering on the Richter scale of “oh my God, our kids are taking drugs and will all turn into bug-eyed monsters by Sunday,” we are more likely to worry about Jack’s body mass index, and suggest that if he really has a sweet tooth, he consume granules of Sucralose instead.

At the time, though….

Your friend Jack does whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

And that was it for the Smoke.  Murray opened his review with the words, “Who the Smoke were I never knew nor cared,” and shamefacedly, much of his readership agreed.

Today, we probably know more about the Smoke than we even dreamed possible, as every psych magazine, book, pamphlet and fanzine ever printed has laboriously reiterated their tale; while entering their name into any discographical search machine comes up with more compilations than there are… I nearly said “grains of sand on a beach,” but “lumps in a very big bowl of sugar” feels more apt.

And where we once knew of just one song… well, here’s an Anthology which contains fifty seven, of which four retell the tale of jumping Jack, and two more hint further around his proclivities (“Sugar Man” and “Jack is Back”).  But the remainder serve up a smorgasbord that informs us what else we were missing, a tale that stretches from a couple of 1965 singles by the Smoke’s predecessors, the Shots; through a string of singles that continued to appear until as late as 1974, and caught the band making a grand stab at glam rock too; and on to a 1976 remake of “My Friend Jack” that was almost certainly inspired by the interest that Murray’s article reawakened, and which was just as gloriously joyous… and yes, gloriously subversive… as we hoped the still-unheard original might be.

Jack would not remain in the shadows for long.  The Smoke may have been unknown at home, but they were superstars in Germany and, in 1980, Boney M took their cover of “My Friend Jack” high into the local charts, and deep into the UK disco scene, too.  More recently, the utterly wonderful Death by Chocolate delivered the song with such deadpan insouciance that it could almost double as a local news broadcast: “and in other news, my friend Jack eats sugar lumps.”

Those efforts are not here.  But what we do have is access to a discography that was, at its best, as lysergically lovely as anything Jack might have seen while he was lumping; which wraps up all the singles; the It’s Smoke Time LP; b-sides and alternate versions; live cuts; more smoke, in fact, than you could shake a well-packed doobie at.  And more fun than you could have with one, as well.  The Smoke might never have risen as high as they should have.  But compared to the output of the bands that did, boxed up in their own vainglorious anthologies, the Smoke are positively smoking.

One lump or two?

Find it here

20150625024541-a9c23664-0a5c-483f-aad1-c8080114f4f3Phil Rambow

Whatever Happened to Phil Rambow?

(RDJ 156005)

Good question.  There was a time, through most of the 1970s, when Phil Rambow was the Man Most Likely To, in a variety of guises.  With his band the Winkies, he perfected the notion of Glam themed pub rock, and both toured and recorded with Brian Eno – during that brief period when Mr E seriously looked like arm-wrestling Bryan Ferry for pop glory.  A John Peel session, a bootleg, and a glorious single catch the collaboration in full fiery flow, and you should go off and listen to all of them now.

Okay, you’re back.  From the Winkies, Rambow made it over to New York, to become part of that generation spearheading the Max’s Kansas City scene into the era of punk and new wave… his “Night Out” is included on the club’s live album (pause while you play that); back in the UK, he teamed up with Mick Ronson for live shows and sessions, and when Ronson and Hunter cut the first Ellen Foley album, Rambow’s writing was among the highlights.  (Again.. we’ll wait.)

Two solo albums at the end of the 70s should have propelled him to several shades of stardom; writing with Kirsty MacColl, he created the classic “There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”; and then… it was probably as early as the mid-1980s that the first voice raised this album’s titular question, and until Rambow resurfaced for live shows a few years back, we’ve been asking it ever since.

And here comes the answer, Rambow’s first solo album since 1981’s Jungle Law, and did you miss him?  Yeah!

As a writer, Rambow always was peerless.  Early sightings of both Graham Parker and Elvis Costello prompted sharp-eared listeners to compare their songs with his, and though fame and familiarity probably flipped that equation a lot sooner than they should have, still there’s a flourish to the best of Rambow that bears easy comparison to the rest of their work.  File this alongside Parker and the Rumour’s recent reunion, and you can feel the common ground shift ineffably in Rambow’s favor.

The opening “Not Broken” might well be one of the strongest numbers Rambow has ever put his name to, and when you consider that tally includes “Night Out” and “Young Lust” (of Ellen Foley renown), “Fallen” and “Davey’s Blowtorch,” that’s pretty hefty company.  But it’s not alone.  The quizzical “The Birth of Cool” rumbles along like a rootsy Mark Knopfler; “Big Sky” goes back to Rambow’s folky roots in his native Montreal; “Summertown” has a Stonesy groove that sends shivers down the spine; and just halfway through the twelve songs, you’ve stopped congratulating Rambow for not once leafing back through his catalog, and started grumbling that he didn’t make this a double album.

The then-and-now cover photos remind us how many years have elapsed since the last time we heard a new Phil Rambow album and wondered when the rest of the world was going to catch up with him.  But listening to Whatever Happened To…, it could have been just last week.

And this is the sound of his tomorrow.

Buy it here

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