Take the Slow Train
(Irregular Records IRR 104)
Across nine albums released since 1999, Philip Jeays has established himself as both the last of the great French-style chansonniers, and the first songwriting genius of the 21st century.
Comparisons to Jacques Brel tumble easily from the tongue, aided by Jeays’s own occasional ventures into the man’s songbook, and a beautiful slice of self-immolation at the end of “The Devil’s Best Tunes.”
“I know that the devil
“Has all the best tunes
“So I can nick them from him
“Instead of Jacques Brel.”
But he is equally a scion of that distinctly English lineage that reaches back to Peter Hammill and early David Bowie, TV Smith and Robert Wyatt, but which has somehow petered out in more recent years.
Certainly “Here She Comes,” the opening cut from Take the Slow Train, suggests a childhood spent listening to Van Der Graaf Generator, Jeays’ voice and David Blanchard’s sax effortlessly recapturing the interplay that so magically characterized Hammill and David Jackson, while wiry electric guitar… a first for the hitherto acoustic Jeays… might even have long-time listeners combing back through the Dylan songbook in search of a suitable analogy.
And it’s not “Judas.”
Following more swiftly on the heels of last year’s The Wildest Walk than we could ever have expected (two to three year gaps are far more common), Take the Slow Train is disquietingly edgy. The title track is a snarling romp, a shopping list of modern iniquities, a modern-day “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (or “Nadir’s Big Chance”) that nails tabloid fascinations to rampant consumerism, then spits them out with brutal scorn – easy targets, yes, but approached from an uncommonly thoughtful angle. Nadir’s last chance.
“Thoughts of Adeline” and “Mavis,” pinned on either side of the firestorm, are more traditional Jeays territory, contemplative observations of lives that should have been better lived… Al Stewart walked similar sidewalks across his first couple of albums, shining his flashlight into Soho’s darkest doorways, flushing startling beauty from the most unpromising rags.
But Jeays hasn’t simply updated Stewart’s now-nearly half-century old ruminations. He has sharpened them, too. “The Ballad of a Northamptonshire Girl” transplants Old Compton Street to the wilds of the rural midlands, where the bright lights are even further away and the hopelessness clings like hoar frost; and if “Waterloo” is, as it feels, a look back at Ray Davies’s Terry and Julie, it peels back the sunset with forensic precision.
“This is the Age of the Naked Emperors” revisits the brutality of “Take the Slow Train,” but zeroes in on the world through the eyes of a ten year old nephew – one who mocks modern art, scorns religion, thinks his uncle’s songs are boring, and doesn’t even believe in Santa (“I know it’s dad, you fucking twats”); and it’s left to the closing, gently piano’d “The Widest Walk” to offer any hope for the world that Jeays has spent the last forty minutes eviscerating.
As if it deserves any.
Needless hyperbole says this is Jeays’ best album yet – needless, because every one of his CDs so far has merited that same description; hyperbole because, unless you’ve heard him and lived with the music, he’s just another name from the fringes of the British underground, and if he’s really as good as you reckon, then why’ve I never heard of him?
He answers that question, again, across the course of “Take the Slow Train.” Or, rather, he serves up the answer before you ask it.
“Take a brief nonentity
“Forge a golden effigy
“Put them on a pedestal
“Call them a celebrity.”
That, he sings, is the modern alchemy. Jeays belongs to a different realm altogether.
Space Oddity: FM Broadcast 1983
(Laser Media LM 700)
One of those peculiar gray area releases that one would normally assume was a bootleg, but which is available from Amazon UK regardless, Space Oddity adds to that aura by claiming to be a radio show, while actually delivering half of Bowie’s Serious Moonlight rehearsals in Dallas. Oh well, maybe “FM Broadcast” means different things to different people.
Such issues notwithstanding, it’s a riot of a listen. The tour that followed has gone down in history as… well, you have to be careful here. A lot of people caught the gigs and described them as Bowie’s best since (name your favorite). Others saw a newly bloated megastar gurning through the greatest hits, while dressed as an aspiring hotelier.
But the live experience could be misleading, and live recordings more so. While scarcely deviating from the eventual stage repertoire, and boasting nineteen of the thirty-five songs that were performed across the tour, the rehearsals catch Bowie and co in buoyant form. The rearrangements have already been firmed up, the funky saxes have been grafted onto “Heroes,” “What in the World” has been reggaefied – all the things that longtime fans complained about are present and correct. But hearing them without those umpteen thousand fans screaming approval at his every backflip gives us a good idea of what Bowie himself was thinking as the arrangements took shape.
Stevie Ray, as you’d expect, is the star of the instrumental show, to remind us just how great a loss he was to the eventual tour (famously, his cocaine habit forced Bowie to let him go before the tour began), and that despite few of the songs really offering him the opportunity to shine. Short solos and fancy flourishes are the order of the day, with even the traditionally guitar-heavy songs (“I Can’t Explain,” “White Light White Heat,” “Rebel Rebel”) feeling more reliant on sax and backing vocals.
Let’s Dance itself threw four songs into the show, and three of them are here – a boisterous swing through the title track; “Cat People,” which feels even more like a demo for the earlier single than the album version did; and “China Girl,” which if anything is even more insubstantial than the hit.
The real meat lies within the lesser-famed cuts; a plaintively moving “Wild is the Wind,” a jagged “Joe the Lion,” a triumphant “Red Sails” (on which Vaughan does shine, albeit briefly) and the aforementioned “What in the World,” which shrugs off its shock at being staked out in the Caribbean sun, and winds up having a wonderful time.
The inclusion of between-song chatter adds to the sense of occasion, a lovely “Life on Mars?” offers a delightful highlight, the sound quality is superb. So, while this CD won’t alter anybody’s opinion of this phase of Bowie’s career, it’s nevertheless a fine chance to hear what might have been, had Bowie’s plans not been so radically altered.
Looking Out (2CD)
(Esoteric ECLEC 22546/22547)
Following on from the deluxe repackagings of the Move’s first two albums (reviewed here), Esoteric’s remastering campaign moves on to their third LP and their solitary EP – the latter expanded across the entire Marquee Club concert that produced the legendary Something Else.
It’s a visceral experience. With a live album firmly in mind, the Move hit the stage on February 27, only for sundry technical gremlins to cavort across the performance and render much of it unusable. So, three months later they tried again – only now it was personnel changes that affected things, as Ace Kefford departed, guitarist Trevor Burton took over on bass, and a little piece of magic fled the scene.
It was the May 5 gig that served up the EP’s five tracks (also included here), but the earlier show that became the legend – even more so after the tapes were reassembled, remixed and remastered, and turned out not to be unreleasable after all. Across a dozen tracks, highlighted by just a couple of hits (“Fire Brigade” and “Flowers in the Rain”), the mayhem of the primal Move is unleashed – covers heavy, and there’s still a few faults, but you can watch the energy bleed through your speakers.
“It’ll Be Me,” the old Jerry Lee Lewis chestbeater, kicks things off to remind us just what a great rock’n’roll band this was; later, Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” gets the kind of work-out that even the Sex Pistols could only flail at. The Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock’’n’Roll Star” sheds all trace of its west coast jangle, while the Move even pip Janis Joplin to “Piece of my Heart,” and the vocals are no less impassioned.
Two years later…
The band that could have rewritten rock history was now intent on allowing rock history to rewrite it. The arrival of Idle Race’s Jeff Lynne brought the line-up back to full strength, but it also introduced something else – a violent ambition that saw the band increasingly mistaking artifice for art, and blithely vanishing up their own backsides in the name of the newly emerging prog sound.
Wherefore those glorious three minute smash-and-grabbers of old? Wherefore choruses that nailed themselves to your brain stem and remained there till the lobotomy? “Looking On,” their third album’s opening title track, is a muddy exercise in cramming as many non-tunes into seven-plus minutes as possible, a bass driven suite into which Roy Wood occasionally ventures a taste of past melodic glories, but which is otherwise driving into the impenetrable undergrowth of the then-vibrant college circuit. You can smell the dandruff, feel the greatcoats, and under every arm there is a heap of albums on the Vertigo label.
And it’s fantastic, their best album yet. The thunder of “Turkish Tram Collector Blues”; the portentous “Day in the Life” of Jeff Lynne’s “What?” (ELO’s entire future career crammed into seven glorious minutes); the Stonesy grind of “When Alice Comes Back to the Farm”; the bludgeoned BeeGees of “Open Up Said the World at the Door”; the lascivious swagger of “Feel Too Good” … and “Brontosaurus,” truly the most aptly-named song of the year, crashing through the primeval forest, munching on passing past pop stars, and crushing all beneath its lizard leather boots.
In a year or two’s time, glam rock would come pirouetting through those same wooded glades, raucous raptors in spangles and glitter. But “Brontosaurus’ got there first… it just did things a lot more slowly. Like the song says, “But she can really do the brontosaurus, and she can scream the heeby jeeby chorus. Until you know what she’s really got ‘cos she can do it loud.”
Not even the Sweet could have put it better.
The album at an end, the first disc concludes with a bonus b-side (“Lightning Never Strikes Twice”), before the second disc kicks in with a couple of out-takes, a promo edit of “Brontosaurus” and a brace of period BBC sessions, which themselves wrap up with a near-metallic thrash through the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman.” And you see how far the band has come since their days at the Marquee. There’s even a bass solo amidships.
So yes. The Move had vanished up their own backsides. Now they were punching from within.
Legacy 29: The Eldorado Sunset Suite/EMI Audition
(DA Legacy 29)
The continued excavation of the Danny Adler archive reaches 1979, and the eponymous band that succeeded Roogalator into this world – a slimmed down trio of guitar, bass (Andy La Fone) and drums (Pete Miles), but no slacking off when it came to the music.
Adler’s innate funkiness is no surprise – even at the height of pub rock, and punk in its boozy aftermath, Roogalator was a virtuoso lesson in the dirtiest dancing, a seething Chic in shagnasty clothing, boiler-suited and boiling. The Danny Adler Band just upped the tempo a few degrees.
The EMI audition is the correct point of entry here, though it begins more than halfway through the disc. Nine Adler originals kick off with “The Ten Commandments of the Boogie,” flash and sashaying through the kind of irresistible hipshake that the Stones used to flap a wrist at, but were always too fey to truly pull off. There’s no place for self-consciousness in music like this, and Adler and co have a brashness that never gets out of your face.
“Ghost Train Ride” drapes blues across the scenario; “Solid Sender” is a ringing rocker redolent of the best of Wilco Johnson’s latest (and probably not-coincidentally named) band; and “(Take Off Your) Fantasy Pants” is a groover that even outshines its magnificent title.
As John Lennon almost said, “Thank you, and I hope you passed the audition.”
The remainder of the disc is given over to a fifteen movement funk suite commissioned by the BBC’s World About Us TV program, and that alone speaks volumes for its dexterity and ambition. Wholly instrumental, the movements are short – “Creosote Road Pueblo Mill” is a mere twenty-seven locomotive seconds; the two longest cuts just top three minutes. But a single “Sunset Dynaflow’ theme moves through them all, shifting and drifting into different guises, and lending startling form and cohesion to the piece.
It’s an incredible piece of work, a reminder not only of Adler’s adventurous brilliance, but also that of a broadcaster that would even consider hiring a white funk three piece to soundtrack a natural history documentary. Which itself is something to think about in the current climate, with a British government hellbent on destroying the Beeb in the name of party political correctness. Some institutions are worth more than money and ego. The BBC is one… and the Danny Adler Band was another.
(The Hip Replacement 009)
Seventh album time for the sentimental boffins, and four sides/two CDs worth of the kind of music that gives pigeonholes a bad name. With a title track that shimmers like a surf western soundtrack, if XTC had ever tried shooting one; a folky instrumental that’s all about the weather; and another that would simply ooze psychedelia if it didn’t sound like Davy Graham, Golden Omens does nod towards the P word more often that not, but that’s all it does. It nods.
Reputations are good, after all, to lure people in, but the Scientists have never placed all their eccentricities in one basket, and Golden Omens would kick them over if they had. Punctuating the songs with brief, haunting soundscapes, it’s the kind of album that chases you round the house for fun, then tickles your feet when it catches you. “Zeds” is maddening, a nonsensical chant over plangent acoustics, with one entire verse of wordless muse; and “Strange Oceans” is a nursery rhyme for solo Syd Barrett fans.
And there’s a McCartney-Wings mood that clings to everything, from the days when Wildlife and Ram were home to his heart, and he refused to take his own past seriously. “You think ‘Let It Be’ was meaningful? Wait till you’ve heard ‘C-Moon’.” Or “Incredible Design,” for that matter. If you’ve never thought of jellyfish as chandeliers, you will now.
Things get even weirder across the second half of the album, as it holds a fun house mirror up to the first, and takes off from there. Again, a short melodic intro; again, a ride on the woody, with “Surfarella’ rolling like the Who at Big Sur.
“Glimpse!” is as melancholy as its opposite number, “Shiver Me Timbers,” is raucous, but it still feels like a sea shanty; and so on. And then there’s “The Missing Mountains Song,” a slice of wry autobiography about a young man leaving London for a new life in the Scientists’ hometown of Cardiff, delivered complete with one of rock’s most memorable slabs of iconoclastic scorn – “take your jellied eels and burn them in the fires of hell.”
Twenty-seven tracks and not a dull moment among them. The Scientists might have invented perfection.
Pre-Millennium Tension (Expanded Edition)
The last man standing from the electro-dance explosion of the early-mid nineties, Tricky’s career across the ensuing two decades may not be a series of non-stop highs, but that’s always been beside the point.
With the exceptions of Prince and Bowie (and, for the sake of argument, whoever it was that you were about to mention), there are precious few post-sixties artists whose careers can be held up as accomplishments in themselves, as opposed to a confused stream of generally disconnected albums. Few, too, who have operated so wholly to their own specifications, caring only for where them will lead him.
The last self-perpetuating alchemist of the 20th century, and more or less the last one left in the 21st, Tricky has been out on his own for so long now that every new album feels all the more precious because of it. And his last few (beginning with 2008’s Knowle West Boy) have been among the best of their age.
Pre-Millennium Tension takes us back to the (near) beginning, a 1996 set that may or may not have been his sophomore offering, depending upon how you regard Nearly God. Already stepping away from the trip hop that defined his early rep, this was the Tricky Kid’s vision of punk, fed through Jamaican studios and New York atmosphere, an album of sinister dance-in-the-dark with Martina Topley-Bird piping like specters behind his doomed murmur, and the rhythms shifting like something under your bed.
The hit “Christiansands” remains the album’s most instant standout, but Pre-Millennium Tension remains tense throughout, sexy, sordid and evocatively dangerous. The closing “Piano” is especially affecting, a muttered rap over hypnotic piano that defies you to figure out exactly what it’s going on. And you know that’s probably for the best – which means the switch from the end of the album to the first of five bonus tracks is a lot more abrupt than it ought to be.
“Flynn,” a slender period b-side, after all, is scarcely one of Tricky’s greatest concoctions. But “Devil’s Helper” and “Grass Roots” slip back into the mood of the album, and the two remixes that wind things up take us out with a crash (an “extreme” reprise of “Makes Me Wanna Die”) and a shiver (a “Green Stinky Mix” of “Piano”).
A dozen albums in, there is a pressing need for the Tricky catalog to be given some kind of fresh shine, but prior to this, only Maxinquaye (his debut) has seen any kind of refurbishment. Maybe this collection bodes well for the future… because he certainly deserves it.
We all do.
The Cromlech Chronicles
(Fruits de Mer Winkle 23)
Recorded more or less live in the studio, and titled for the standing stone that lies just a short walk from the building, The Cromlech Chronicles serves four new songs, across forty fresh minutes, but is dominated, utterly dominated, by the near-title track.
Twenty-three minutes short, “The Cromlech Suite” is… well, it’s slow-burning space rock, if it has to be anything, which means it’s also redolent of all the usual names that come to mind when you say that. There’s a Floydy vibe, circa Meddle, maybe; an Ozrics aura, a Gong-on-course-for-parts-unknown adventurousness.
But it’s Sendelica too, and that’s the key exception, because few bands of the current age have so firmly nailed those notions to the 21st century, at the same time as stripping back more centuries than that. Hypnotic to nigh-on boleric proportions, but free to scoot off into themes that feel almost free form at times, the suite is propelled by its most primal underpinnings, while Pete Bingham’s guitar and Lee Relfe’s sax color in the edges, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes alone.
This is especially true as the piece shapeshifts from what we might describe as its first part to its second – a more relaxed jam than before, but more open to shaking the energies up. There’s a comparison to be made with Hawkwind’s “Wind of Change,” if it had gone on for fifteen minutes, but it’s a loose one. Again, it’s easy to try and match faces to the music, but better to just lay back and let it devour you.
Flip the vinyl and a second side-long piece opens with “Satori part one,” Sendelica’s densely driven take on a Flower Travellin’ Band number; merges into the near-pastoral “Vellichor,” which could well be Sendelica’s “Albatross,” were they ever to choose to have one; and finally, everything lets rip for “Zenosyne,” nine-plus minutes of orgiastic jazz androids arguing over whose turn it is to turn up the stereo. A fitting conclusion to a sensational album but, more than that, the conclusion to the rite that began, whether you knew it or not, when the needle first touched the vinyl, forty minutes ago.
Some albums are so good that you call them an experience. The Cromlech Chronicles is an experience that just happens to be an album.
Cherry Red CRCDBOX 26 (3 CDs)
Following up the C86 box of recent, and so-revered memory, C87 is a three CD clamshell stuffed with everything you thought you’d forgotten as the post-punk afterglow began shifting towards something new.
In terms of content, it’s indie central once again – assuming you remember that indie was a state of mind, as opposed to a barrier to creative expression; indeed, whereas C86 was very much bound to its time and place in the loosest stylistic terms, its successor wanders all over the place, with the emphasis on the wandering. Rock history rarely has anything nice to say about the age, summing it up with the dread words “the Smiths” and “REM,” and impatiently awaiting the dawn of Stone Roses.
Skip around those pillars of misbegotten critical ecstasy, however, and the delights pour down like rain – the clear-eyed pop of the Sea Urchins, the clanging guitars of House of Love, the D-I-Y buzzsaws of the Vaselines, the twitchy dance of the Shamen… name and name again speaks for the potential giants of an age around the corner, and if you nurture fond memories of Kitchens of Distinction, Inspiral Carpets, the Soup Dragons and the Wedding Present, step this way.
The heart of the collection, though, are the bands you may not remember , but know you ought to: Gaye Bykers on Acid, with a sound that sums up their name; Jamie Wednesday offering hope for the future Carter USM; Talulah Gosh, the Primitives, and a host of early Creation creations – Blow Up, the Weather Prophets, Phil Wilson, Biff Bang Pow!, the Bodines, David Westlake – lined up to remind us of the days when Alan McGhee’s label was almost as trustworthy as Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes’s. But the golden age of Sarah Records was only just beginning in 1987, so the Sea Urchins (Sarah 001) is as deep into the catalog we can go. Hopefully there’ll be a C88 to take us through a few more.
As with any collection this size, not every track will send you screaming out onto the streets in search of further vinyl; there may even be a few that you’ve heard too often, before you even play them. But in an age when there really cannot be another note of ’67 psychedelia that has not been exhumed at least eighteen times, and ’77 punk’s been equally scoured, we can only welcome the chance to turn the hands of time forward another full decade, to the unsung glories of the next generation.
Which leads us nicely into…
Sharon Signs to Cherry Red: Independent Women 1979-1985
RPM RPMD 532 (2 CDs)
…what could be considered a companion set to every 80s anthology that’s ever been, albeit with an angle for which at least one well-meaning, sensitive soul will summons some suitably outraged disdain and declare “well, that’s a bit sexist, isn’t it.”
Independent women? Whatever next?
Two CDs take their title from a glorious 45 released by the Kamikaze Pilots in 1985, reflecting upon what seemed to be the plethora of (to paraphrase Louise Wener’s t-shirt a decade later) “female-fronted indy bands” who’d signed to Cherry Red that decade. From the Marine Girls and their component elements (dour Tracey Thorn, effervescent Grab Grab the Haddock) to indy chart-topping Jane (& Barton), there did seem to be something of a pattern emerging. But Sharon eschews a trawl through the label’s own archive, to serve up instead a full 45 tracks that heatseek the UK indy scene for all manner of sugar and spice – which in turn serves up some great slugs and snails.
Vivien Goldman’s “Launderette,” an early Adrian Sherwood effort, is glorious point of dubbed-down entry; offerings from the Mo-Dettes, Mari Wilson, the Shillelagh Sisters and Strawberry Switchblade pin down some of the furthest musical parameters.
Dolly Mixture and the Gymslips tease the punkier side of things; Eleanor Rigby flirts with Mod pastures; Dorothy entered “I Confess” for Eurovision, despite the presence of Psychic TV in her band; and Family Fodder turn in what the liners describe as “the best record Blondie would never make that year” – it’s called “Debbie Harry,” and it should be.
Nothing here outstays its welcome, and most of it leaves you hungry for more, be it the cod-reggae lurch of Jaqui and Jeanette (a Zoo Records signing, with a Liverpool supergroup in the studio), or the candied rainbows of the Candees’ “Miss Rainbow.” There’s a so-good-it-hurts cover of the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks,” reinvented in pure Brill Building beauty by Dawn Chorus and the Blue Tits; and a boy hairdresser b-side from Tracie, a Paul Weller protege who just happened to be one of the finest English soul singers of her generation. (And yes, you have heard her; every time you listen to “Beat Surrender.”
On and on, with a vivacity and verve that is absolutely contagious, an updated version of those sixties girl group comps that continue to lionize that age, and addressing many of the same concerns as well. Just from a whole new direction. In fact, the only thing that’s really missing is Cindy and the Saffrons’ “Past Present Future,” the Shangri-Las shocked into the electric eighties, but just as heart-stoppingly fabulous.
So, Sharon signed to Cherry Red, and a lot of this is what happened next. But leave it to the Kamikaze Sex Pilots to deliver the denouement across the album’s final track.
“She really likes a band called Tears for Fears, and she’s got nothing between her ears… Sharon’s been deflowered, she’s been defoliated, oh yeah.”