Reviews: Gilli Smyth, Hollywood Brats, Eggs Over Easy, Feelies, Anthony Phillips, Chicago

03286202372_2008.inddThe Feelies

Time for a Witness

(Bar None BRNCD 237)

It’s about time that the Feelies were given a fresh crack of the whip; allowed to clamber out of their historical pigeonhole as an eighties college rock band, to remind us just how much the next few years (decades?) owed them.

Never the most prolific of bands… Time for a Witness was just their fourth album in ten years, and it would be their last for another twenty, as well… the Feelies had long since put the striking strivings of their Ork and Stiff years behind them; Only Life, their superlative third LP (also newly reissued) was a gorgeous slab of darkened pop, still echoing the heroes that got them started in the first place, and packing one of the all-time great Velvets covers.  Here they offer the Stooges the same honor, wrapping things up with “Real Cool Time.”

Before that, however, nine new songs find the Feelies following their glam noir instincts to their ultimate conclusion, an album that might arrive with all the baggage of pre-Nirvana “college rock” all over it, but which journeys a lot further than any of that truck’s other usual suspects.

The opening “Waiting” sets the scene, a rambunctious rhythm, a searing riff, and Glenn Mercer’s lackadaisical vocal hanging almost disconnectedly over all; at their best (which was most of the time), the Feelies were a band that took you back to almost any era of rock you wanted to relive, but it’s boring reeling off the “if you like that, you’ll love this” comparisons (Big Star, Flaming Groovies, Modern Lovers, half of Flying Nun’s output, blah blah), especially as “Time For A Witness” comes over like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” as rewired by Bo Diddley, and “Sooner or Later” is the Monkees with Keith Moon on drums.  And “Find a Way” is the Velvets vamping “Walk on Gilded Splinters.”  And so forth, until you realize that the comparisons are growing so absurd that the only thing you can really say is, “hey, this sounds like the Feelies.”

One day the world will wake up to just what a great band this was.  One day, the Feelies story will be atop the best selling books list, their collected works will be the box set of the year, and they’ll reform for a single prime time televised live show, at which they’ll come out and play nothing but their favorite Fugs covers.

That’s how good the Feelies were.  That’s how great this album is.  And that’s how much you need to hear it.

 

2The Hollywood Brats

Sick On You

(Cherry Red CDBRED 76)

If you don’t already know it, go Google the legend of the Hollywood Brats.  We’ll wait.

This is Anglo Glam Rock at its seething, sashaying, slimy best, an album that might have been cut in the shadow of the New York Dolls, but which actually kicks that band’s studio antics into the shade.

From the opening “Chez Maximes” through to the closing “Sick On You” (a song that was so in tune with the not-yet-conceived punk rock explosion that it still soundtracks ’77 like few others), the Brats were everything that glam rock was supposed to be, before it was hijacked by the intellectual smarty-pants, and sold by the pound to meaty-fisted pop kids.  Up there with Silverhead (whose own magnificent output is also poised for reissue), the Brats were the stomp of the Stones and the punch of the Pretty Things, dragged ten years out of their purple patch and forced to wear the most garish platform boots you can imagine.

All of which might explain why it took seven years for their album to be released.

Sick On You finally hit daylight in 1980, by which time the Brats themselves had been reborn as the Boys, and yes, you can see the joins.  But it was seized upon for what it was, a warm and happy memoir of an affair that ended far too quickly, and the Brats even regrouped (in Norway) for a time… long enough to conceive a second album, Hung Like Stallions, but that’s about it.

Three songs from that set are rounded up for the bonus disc here, alongside a few first album out-takes, some studio sessions and a glorious live cut, too.  All of which amounts to the kind of anthology you wish every band had at their disposal.  Short, sharp and non-stop shattering.

 

3Eggs Over Easy

Good’n’Cheap – the Eggs Over Easy Story

(Yep Roc YEP 2402)

For a band that you’d swear had not been mentioned in over forty years, this two CD collection has received a lot of coverage recently, all of it replaying how an unknown American three piece washed up in London in 1970, found themselves a residency at an out-of-the-way local tavern, and singlehandedly invented Pub Rock.

It’s all true, too.  Before Eggs Over Easy, pubs relied on open mike nights, the jukebox and not-much-else to keep the drinkers’ minds off whatever it is that people used to think about while they were drinking.  After them… it was as if every unknown band in London dropped by to see them, found a pub that promised to be equally accommodating, and within a year or two, the whole city was awash with bands of a more-or-less similar ilk.

Modern preconceptions of what Pub Rock was have been hopelessly distorted by the emergence, somewhat later in the day, of Doctor Feelgood (angry R&B), Graham Parker (angry Motown), Roogalator (angry funk) and Elvis Costello (angry midget).  The best and the bulk of the earlier strain, however, was less nailed to any single musical theme, any single over-arching temperament.  Americana was the order of the day, in all of its manifold guises, as an ear clasped to Brinsley Schwarz, the Winkies, Plummet Airlines and so forth will reveal.  And Eggs Over Easy are where it all started.

Not that they left much concrete evidence behind.  Disc two here captures the band live in a London studio in 1971, under the aegis of manager Chas Chandler, and it is amazing… not only for its historical importance, but because this really was a great band, who might have flourished in the confines of the London circuit, but would have been just as electrifying any place else.

Or should have been.  But returning to the US saw them leave more than English beer behind them.  Good’N’Cheap, their debut album, was everything anyone could have asked from the Eggs, but their absence from the UK circuit saw other groups replace them in the hearts of the audience, and America just didn’t go for all else they had to offer.

No matter that their debut still stands among the finest country rock albums of its age, it would be four years before Eggs recorded again, a one-off single for the Buffalo label, and four years more before their sophomore set. Both are here, both are great.  But both leave you wondering what might have happened if….

 

4Gilli Smyth

Mother

(Esoteric ECLEC 2551)

Ask the initiated, and the convoluted story of the post-Gong diaspora was responsible for some of the most enthralling and imaginative albums of their manifold ages.  Ask the uninitiated, and they’ll just look at you in utter confusion.  Both of which are perfectly reasonable and, indeed, desirable, responses.  After all, if you were supposed to know what Gong was all about, you wouldn’t need to ask.

Mother was Gilli Smyth’s first solo album following the group’s (admittedly partial) disintegration in 1976, and it’s both instantly recognizable and deliciously disorienting, as Smyth separates herself from her in-band personae, then moves to reclaim them again.

Part-enchantress, part-mother, part space-whisperer, part-temptress, part-goddess, Mother touches the sonic side of the planet Gong in so many ways… of course it does!  Elements of the Daevid Allen inspired instrumentation were drawn from Gong sessions stretching back to 1971, and while it’s not always the ideal approach (“Shakti Yoni” sounds distinctly muddy compared to the rest of the album), when it works, it works.

The metronomic “Time of the Goddess,” easing its way into light-years-distant space rock; “O.K. Man, This Is Your World,” with its jazz club airs drifting behind a murmuring Smyth; and, best of all, the glorious, gorgeous “Taliesin” draws elements from the same live session that supplied Gong’s contribution to the 1973 Greasy Truckers album, and enthralls even before Smyth previews the so-seductively eerie style of storytelling that would become 1979’s Fairy Tales album.

Pools of poetry glisten between the musical elements, while intriguing soundscapes (again courtesy of Allen) interrupt with fresh flow and direction – the fairground fanfare that heralds “Prostitute Poem” predicts Current 93’s fascination with the familiar falling onto obscure ground, while “Next Time Ragtime” carves mystifying voices, describing their hopes for their next life, across a bed of sweet acoustic guitars.

Mother was Smyth’s final collaboration with Daevid Allen until the Gong reunions began picking up speed, so perhaps it can be viewed as the end of an era.  But its also the dawn of another, because the directions she laid out here have remained common (but definitely not static) throughout her career since then.  There’s no word yet as to whether this set heralds the remastering and reissue of the albums that followed, but there’s a couple of dozen more Smyth/Mother Gong albums that are just aching for you to hear them, and this is a great place to start.

 

5Anthony Phillips

1984

(Esoteric ECLEC 32550)

And so it continues, this painstaking and glorious remastering of the Anthony Phillips back catalog, album-by-album, out-take-by-out-take, and all beautifully bolstered with 5.1 mixes that truly rank among that particular art form’s crowning achievements.

Originally released in 1981 (the same year, incidentally, that Phillips cut his own collaboration with Gilli Smyth and Mother Gong), and indelibly flavored by that era’s fascination with synthesizers, 1984 was originally greeted with some shock by the Phillips faithful, skipping away from the oft-times pastoral guitar-led pastures of its predecessors, and allowing electronics to carry the mood.  And it still feels like something of a period piece, right down to the sometimes clunky precision of the drum machines… truly, one of rock’s most heinous obsessions.

But it’s also instantly recognizable Phillips, magnificently melodic, eminently atmospheric, and taking as much delight as ever in frustrating the listener by snatching away the most captivating themes long before their time… though the album boasts just four “tracks,” movements within movements carry1984 across any number of thematic divides, and it’s fascinating to slip from the parent album to the bonus-stacked second disc, and catch the piece in an earlier mix – and then leap from that to disc three’s 5.1 mix, which has to be experienced to be believed.

Of course, for many listeners, the music is indivisible from the George Orwell novel that titled it, and it does work well in that context – a lot better, for example, than the appalling twaddle that the Eurythmics sicked up when they were given the subsequent movie soundtrack.

But it functions just as well without any reference to Winston and Julia, a point that the second disc amplifies when it drops a wholly separate piece of music in amidst the mixes – the “Rule Britannia Suite” was Phillips’ soundtrack to a UK TV series of the same name, and the blend is seamless.  Add 1984’s similarly electronic Invisible Men to the CD pile, and the linkage becomes even more obscure.

And it’s all the better because of it.

 

6Chicago

Quadio

(Rhino BA2 553946)

Love them or loathe them, you have to admit that Chicago knew how to make a smooth sound.  Not the first two albums – they remain crunchy, defiant blurts of snazzy, jazzy underground groove that not even a lifetime’s over-exposure to “25 or 6 to 4” and “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is” can erase.

But later, as the earlier energies were subverted by success, and the albums sprawled towards something approaching perpetual lack-of-motion, Chicago became the ultimate in trendy easy listening.  Which, again, means you either love them or loathe them.  Like Elvis and cheeseburgers used to say, 50 million consumers cannot be wrong.

Quadio is Chicago in extremis, a hefty box of nine blu-ray audio discs, between them delivering the band’s first nine studio albums (the live fourth is omitted) not in some fancy-pants modern surround sound re-envisioning, but in the original quadraphonic mixes that so delighted people named Jeremy and Fifi when they invited the neighbors round for a fondue key party.  (Stereo mixes are also included.)

Which means … while it won’t convert you overnight to a state of Chicagomania, as an historical document it is priceless.  Quad mixes, which – once more, and this time with feeling – you also either love or loathe, are one of the last great frontiers of the modern mania for reissues.  This is particularly true of those that were done beneath either the band or their producer’s loving gaze (like so many mono and stereo LPs, there were a lot that weren’t), and the Chicago crew were one of the units that truly comprehended the medium’s potential.

Add that to the fact that blu-ray has thus far proved the only digital medium that can genuinely capture the nuances of music-as-it-was-meant-to-be-heard, and visitors to sundry audiophile message boards will doubtless have already felt the seismic impact of Quadio.  If only because it’s stopped them all from moaning about “noobies” who describe their LPs as “vinyls.”

Everything about this box screams for attention, then, from the fact that the discs are stashed inside neat little replicas of the original art work, through to the inclusion of the same iron-on transfer that came with Chicago VIII.  (Other albums have their giveaway posters reproduced.)  Even better, now that the quad beast has finally been uncaged in all its career-spanning glory, can we perhaps expect more such packages to come rattling down the road?

Here’s hoping…..

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