Reviews: Marc Bolan, Tangerine Dream, Lords of the New Church, Thinking Plague, Tim Bowness, the Fuzztones

1Marc Bolan

Presents the Soul Sessions 

(Light of Love/Easy Action WAXCOCD001)

Marc Bolan’s atempts to establish and, in some ways, reinvent himself as a fount of seventies soul authenticity always fell some way short of capturing the public imagination.  Both at the time, as he wrestled with his own commercial decline post-1973, and in more recent years (Edsel’s acclaimed reissue campaign in the 1990s), his work with Gloria Jones, her brother Richard Jones and Sister Pat Hall either went ignored (Jones’s Vixen album) or was left altogether unreleased.

There was a minor hit for Bolan and Jones’s mawkish duet through “To Know You is To Love You,” and a spot of applause for his production of her take on “Dock of the Bay,” but mention Jones’s name to most people, and she was the creator of the original “Tainted Love,” long, long before.  And even that was known only in Northern Soul circles, even after Soft Cell topped the charts with a cover of it.

So, a two CD compilation of out-takes, broadcast versions, home recordings and masters should be of interest only to the most open-minded Bolan completists, right?

Wrong.  Lovingly curated in a manner that too few Bolan collections ever are, Soul Sessions is an object lesson both in how seriously Bolan took his soul, and how good he was at creating it.  Of course he was writer or cowriter of all but a handful of tracks, but he was also responsible for rearranging familiar Bolan boogies (“Get It On,” “Jitterbug Love,” “Sunken Rags,” “Sailors of the Highway”) to match all that his artists could bring to them.

Gloria Jones’s voice, after all, was a thing of wonder, and Pat Hall wasn’t far behind (Richard Jones, less so, but he’s only here for four of the twenty-eight tracks), and though the gam rock faithful might raise an eyebrow, it was not difficult for either to mine the soulful roots in even Bolan’s classics.  Hall’s breathily smooth “Get It On” oozes Philly purity, while her “When I Was a Child” i the best Three Degrees song that the trio never made.

At the same time, Jones’s revamped “Tainted Love” packs all the playful energy you’d expect from Bolan, while Jones also gives “Go Now” a good run for its over-familiar money. In fact, it’s only when Bolan is trying too hard to be “relevant” that things get a little much – “Drive Me Crazy (Disco Lady)” was probably annoying before he even wrote it, and Jones’s impassioned squawking does not improve it one iota.

If your love of Bolan ends at any time prior to the release of Tanx, Soul Sessions probably won’t have you leaping around the room with excitement.  But if his own efforts to embrace soul and R&B across his own compositions mean anything at all to you, this is a powerful, and much needed package.  Great liners, too.

2Tangerine Dream

The Official Bootleg Series Volume One

Esoteric/Reactive EREACD 41032

Regardless of how one feels about the bulk of Tangerine Dream’s career, as they bleeped, booped and noodled their way through a seemingly interminable mass of new age wallpaper, there is no questioning the fact that, once, they were genuine pioneers, responsible for some of the most adventurous and, at the same time, eminently listenable, electronic music of their generation.

The sequence of albums that led them through to the live Ricochet certainly brims with brilliance and innovation, and though we mourn the loss of Edgar Froese, whose vision the Tangs were in the first place, the archives at least are beginning to yawn, and first out of the basement is this, a four disc, two show live box that captures the band at their (arguable) peak.

The first two discs recapture what is arguably the best-known, and most controversial gig the band ever played, at Reims Cathedral in December 1974, in front of an audience who – according to church authorities – spent the performance urinating, smoking pot and perpetrating all manner of other unmentionables inside the building.  Further rock and pop performances were banned, although Nico (whose opening act was released by Cleopatra a few years back) insisted she saw no such shenanigans taking place, and there’s no evidence of them here, either – just a startlingly moody and atmospheric set that could only have been enhanced by the surroundings.

If you’ve seen Tony Palmer’s film of Tangerine Dream live at Coventry Cathedral the following year (either the original version, or the later redubbed DVD), you’ll have some idea of just how startlingly the music matched the surroundings, and spread across two CDs… that is, twice the length of the official Ricochet souvenir of the bands’ contemporary live set – this becomes one of the key texts in the story of Tangerine Dream.

In those terms, the second show, from Mannheim in 1976, is a lesser document, simply because Tangerine Dream’s own approach was changing.  Less improvisational, less prone to letting the music take the players where it would, they were heading into what even the excellent (and very supportive) liner notes concede was “closer to rock music than ever before.”   They’re still out there, of course, when compared with most everything else that labored beneath that banner, but the shift was both underway and audible.

It’s still a great listen, though, and if you extend your love of the Tangs as far as their next official live album, Encore, it’s fascinating to observe how they got there.  Plus you get a great booklet, and a two-sided mini poster for the Reims gig, as well.

3The Lords of the New Church

Los Diablos

(Easy Action EARS 083)

Following on from the recent The Gospel Truth box set, with its senses-pounding round up of Lords rarities and live shows spaced across their career, Los Diablos takes us back to a single point in time, the 1983-1984 span during which their second album, Is Nothing Sacred?, was brewing, and two shows just six months apart.

Anyone who saw the Lords at this time, or at any time, come to that, will recall just what an incendiary act they were – Stiv Bators was an electrifying frontman, all wire and leather and an eye for the best moves Iggy Pop should have made; Brian James was (and remains) among the most aggressive guitar players ever to touch the realms of genius; Dave Treganna and Nicky Turner combined as one of the last truly instinctive rhythm sections in history.  And together, an understanding of what rock’n’roll should truly be… that is, radical, sloppy, loud, self-opinionated, confrontational and energetic… as opposed to the toothless, overproduced crone it was already becoming, ensured their standing alongside the precious few other bands that shared that knowledge.  The Deviants, the Fairies, the MC5 sometimes, the Stooges of course, the Stones occasionally, Billy Childish every so often, Blue Cheer in theory and the Heavy Metal Kids early… yeah, it really is a short list.

But that’s the company the Lords kept at their best, and while there’s a frenetic wildness to their earlier shows (the 1982 Agora gig on The Gospel Truth, for instance) that had been honed away by the time of these shows, still there’s a beautiful savagery that could leave your brain in charred fragments if you listen close enough.

More or less the whole of the debut album is here, first across an eleven track CD that pulls the best performances from the two shows; and then across a DVD that presents both gigs in their seething entirety; rougher and readier in 1983, but with “Dance With Me” and “Live for Today” already in place to signpost the road to tomorrow; a little bit smoother in ’84, but that’s a comparative term at the best of times – “smooth” for the Lords simply meant the guitars didn’t slice the top of your head off immediately, and Stiv spooned your eyeballs out one at a time, instead of both at once.

The sound quality is as great as it ought to be, the packaging is generous, the music is magnificent.  And if the politics feel a little dated, it’s only the names, the headlines and the PR that have changed.  The motivations behind them remain just as sleazy.

4Thinking Plague

In This Life

Cuneiform (RUNE 407)

The third album by the long running Denver avant gardists, released in 1989, was the first to raise the septet beyond the applause of a very select underground – partly because it was their first release on that then-new fangled compact disc format; partly because it was their first on ReR, partly because Fred Frith guests on one track… and mostly because it was, and remains, a startling concoction that took us out of the eighties with something approaching hope for the future.

Timelessly inventive in the same vein as the best of Henry Cow or Slapp Happy (for those of a certain vintage), and the Art Bears or Dagmar Krause for what were then more contemporary touchstones, Thinking Plague exist in that glorious chasm in which melody and dance can be reduced to instinct, to allow other notions to rise up in their place.  Certainly there’s a wicked sense of dislocation that early ears might gaze askance at… more cynically, you could write it off as music for people who think music should be diagrammed, and then played backwards to annoy the rest of us.

Where Thinking Plague prosper, however, is in those places where they feel the most eclectic; there is a shattered, scattered beauty here that was still being pursued a decade later by the likes of Life Without Buildings, and almost a decade earlier by Ki Di Me and a dubless Slits, too.  Susanne Lewis’s vocals are never less than captivating, following the filigree paths that are carved so sensitively through guitarist Mike Johnson’s music… there’s never a sense here of “clever for clever’s sake,” or even art for art’s sake; just a deeply organic, and darkly imaginative succession of songs, sounds and okay, occasional plinky plonky clattery bits, that bely all you’ve ever “thought” you knew about the avant garde.  Which, really, is what the avant-garde was all about in the first place, right?

5Tim Bowness

Stupid Things that Mean the World

(Inside Out 0722-2)

If last year’s Abandoned Dancehall Dreams was No-Man frontman Tim Bowness’s first solo album in a decade, it only follows that Stupid Things that Mean the World is his first in considerably less time than that.  But nothing about its predecessor can be said to be lacking here, at least in terms of the album’s magnificence.  In fact, there are moments when every plaudit draped across Dreams should be doubled with intensity and then redeployed here.  That’s how good it is.

How dully unimaginative it would be to describe this as a prog album… in terms of artwork and guest musicians, heritage and history, it snags that title with its eyes closed.  There’s even a bonus disc of alternate versions and mixes.  But it is essentially an album of songs; great songs, meaningful songs, listenable songs.  No forty minute keyboard solos to let play while you go out for lunch, no topographic hogweeds to circumnavigate slowly while you bathe your cosmic underpants in the pools of existentialism.  Just music, beautiful, moody, well-arranged, exquisitely produced, music.  “Sing to Me” might even put you in mind of one of the grand ballads that haunted Suede’s Dog Man Star, way back when.

There is a loose concept.  Talking to Spin Cycle earlier this year, Bowness explained, the album revolves around “the small and seemingly trivial things that make us who we are, or help us through our lives. It could be an old toy, art/music, shared intimate language, a belief system, an annual holiday, the image or idea of someone you loved in your youth and so on. I was also thinking of something like the significance of the seemingly insignificant Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

But still “the lyrical content in the individual songs is quite separate”; throughout, it’s the songs that carry the show, and some supremely sensitive instrumentation that frames them in a way that is as likely to reflect, say, vintage Procol Harum, as it is mid-period Peter Hammill (whose unmistakable backing vocals on “Everything You’re Not” are wholly responsible for that comparison.  Elsewhere, Phil Manzanera, Pat Mastelotto, and David Rhodes offer names that might ring a certain kind of bell, but Quasimodo they ain’t.)

Largely balladic, often melancholy, always thoughtful and sometimes even sweet,  Stupid Things that Mean the World is a compulsive listen, a late night delight that sounds good in the morning as well.   Which, in this day and age, is actually quite a progressive idea.

Oops.

6The Fuzztones

Psychorama

(Easy Action EARS 084)

All hail the mighty Fuzztones.  Across six CDs, a four song EP and a chunky booklet that tells their whole story,  Psychorama is the first, last and only document you will ever require of this most aptly named of New York psych savages.  Warped and weird with humor set on stun, if the Cramps had had a baby and raised it on bubblegum, the Fuzztones would probably have stolen its lunch money.

This was garage rock with attitude, memories of the sixties seen through such rose tinted spectacles that they were all but unrecognizable to anyone who actually remembered them.  Which, of course, is nobody.

Choose your poisons at random.  The vinyl represses the bands first release, the Live with Screaming Jay Hawkins EP, and it’s still as gloriously disheveled as you remember it.  Then it’s into the albums proper – beginning with the live Leave Your Mind at Home, which sends shards of sonic black light ricocheting round your room and should not, under any circumstances, be (a) listened to on headphones; (b) played to your local neighborhood watch; or (c) eaten with rye bread.

Lysergic Emanations was taped following the band’s first UK tour, opening for the Damned, when they so overshadowed the headliners that nobody was surprised as the album shot up the UK album charts.  Elixir, a live DVD, was filmed in France in 1986 and captures madness through a prism made of magnifying glasses, each one focused on your softest, tenderest parts.  And then the band broke up.  The end.

Or not.  By 1986, a Fuzztones was touring; by 1987, the Fuzztones were back, and in 1989, their third album saw them reestablished in LA and set to slam down two more discs before they finally called a halt to matters.  By which time, their legend was so firmly established that even people who never heard them were convinced that they’d missed out on something life changing.

The UK garage movement of the mid-1980s, itself a lot more influential than the majority of history books like to let on, was certainly deep in the Fuzztones’ thrall, while a lot of what happened in the US thereafter looked in their damaged direction, too.  Yes, their lyrics were often infantile, their sense of humor puerile, their love of singing about their penises sufficient to win them a mention in Screw.  Oh, and they were describing their sound as “grunge” a full decade before anyone else had the same idea.

But let’s not hold any of that against them.  The Fuzztones were fuzzing fantastic.. the only band (as is pointed out in one of the first album’s intros) who could open for the Lords of the New Church, and actually give them something to think about.  And when you buy this box, you’ll have it all!

Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus….

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