Reviews: Wreckless Eric, Us and Them, the Chemistry Set, Al Stewart, Michael Padilla, Beautify Junkyards, Frank Zappa

1Wreckless Eric

AmERICa

(Fire Records)

Instantly recognizable but eternally individual, Wreckless Eric’s first solo album in over a decade opens with a slice of defiant autobiography that really is all the background you need.  If you know Eric from past glories or even gories, then you’ll know everything he’s singing about.  And, if you don’t, then you’re even luckier because AmERICa will unfold before your drooling ears like the movie you’ve been waiting to fall in love with for so long, but been too bound up in cookie crumbs to embrace.

Partially, possibly, inspired by the near relentless touring that has occupied him over the past few years; possibly partly fed by his innumerable encounters with elderly fans who look at him sideways as he takes to the stage and ask “didn’t you used to be Len Bright?,” Wreckless may or may not be feeling buoyed by a recent clutch of reissued classics.

But he’s also turning in one of the most vibrant albums of his career, a collection that picks its targets well, then marries them to the kind of tunefulness that speaks volumes for his own poptastic instincts and doesn’t care a bespectacled dwarf for anything outside of his own frame of reference.

As he sings in “Transitory Thing“ (a drifting kind of ballad whose mournful mood belies an off kilter hopefulness that ranks among his most hard-hitting lyrics ever), “travel broadens the mind, but I must be the stay-at-home kind” and you suddenly realize how  gloriously and unapologetically timeless this album is.  Even when he announces, with no fanfare beforehand, “so this is the space age.  Isn’t it crap.”

Guitars are as chunky as they ought to be, percussion as crunching, other things as stompy.  You put it on and crank it up, and suddenly you’re a kid again, no matter when you were born, first time alone in your parents house, with no-one to tell you to turn it down, a broom for a guitar and a hairbrush for a mike, leaping off the sofa like Pete Townshend off an amp stack, and wondering why doesn’t every record makes you feel as alive as AmERICa.

Because not many records are as alive as AmERICa, and there’s even fewer people around who could write songs as sparkling as those that fill it up.

A teetering pile of wax and CDs insists, compilations of previously released stuff notwithstanding, that this is Eric’s seventeenth album, under seven different identities.  Most of them are marvelous, a few are better than that.  One is the best LP released by anybody, anywhere, throughout the course of an entire decade, and that’s one helluva legacy for anyone to balance on.

But AmERICa might just have kicked them all over, and insisted we start counting again.

 

2Us and Them

Summer Green and Autumn Brown

(Mega Dodo DODOLP 11)

How long have we been waiting for this?

Across a string of priceless, and damned near peerless EPs, the Swedish duo of Britt Rönnholm and Anders Håkanson have established themselves among the most tantalizing outfits around, be it their so-evocative reawakening of The Wicker Man soundtrack, the Walk Light EP, or their take on Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”… or more.

Hasten thee to Bandcamp and pick up one of a limited edition (100 copies) of a four CD box set that includes three past EPs from their Fruits de Mer catalog; then envelop yourself in the fourth (which is also available on standalone vinyl), the debut LP we’ve been demanding for so long.

In many ways, it’s unknown territory, for listeners if not for the band.  The lion’s share of Us and Them’s past releases has comprised covers; Summer Green and Autumn Brown, on the other hand, is resolutely self-composed, but it’s unmistakable regardless.  Rönnholm’s vocals have such a distinctive tone, after all, halfway between seductive lilt and conspiratorial murmur, and with instrumentation that both matches and, occasionally, counterpoints, her moods, the album builds, slowly but swiftly, into the sound of…

Falling leaves, chill evenings, blue mornings, an album that could only be released as fall gets its grip on you, but will leave you dreaming of woodsmoke and damp undergrowth all year long.

Of course that’s an image that the album title only encourages, but close your eyes and you can hear the wind as it whispers through bare trees and scrappy undergrowth, and Rönnholm’s is the voice that sings above the sounds of nature, the witch who croons as she stirs the cauldron; the music you wish you’d learn to hum as you read the brothers Grimm in your childhood.

If this is truly folk music, then its roots are more ancient than any you’ve heard, and that’s as true in the fragility of the instrumentation and melodie, as it is in the occasional abruptness of the lyrics… a review of the album at Heyday Mail Order has already commended Rönnholm for delivering the most beautifully sung “fuck” in recorded history (“State of Mind”), but “Another View of Us” is one of the most ornately honest portraits of a relationship you’ll ever hear, too.

Never raising its voice, never getting over-excited, Summer Green and Autumn Brown finds its place and states its intent with its opening, extended, intro, and does not lose sight of it till the needle hops off after “Insight.”  Again, other reviews have suggested there’s a conceptual air to the full cycle, and maybe there is.  Better, though, to view it as one long and lingering frozen moment; one that you hope will never end.  Although, when it does, you can always play it again.

3The Chemistry Set

The Endless More and More

(Fruits de Mer/Regal Crabmophone WINKLE 21

Twelve songs strong, and opening with a fanfare that would feel more at home on a Northern Soul dancehall than another night at the Fourteen Hour Technicolour Dream, the Chemistry Set’s latest lands in a nifty gold vinyl limited edition, gatefold sleeve and super-fold-out poster… and if you really want to continue calling them a psych band, then you need to redefine your parameters fast.

This is glorious pop, plain and simple, a collection that does, of course, borrow sounds from sundry past fascinations (the Floydian organ, some Canterbury titles, a garage band energy), but it’s what they do with them that matters.  An exquisitely melded mash of melody, hook and chorus, soaring and seeking out those little corners of your ear which make you grin the widest.  It’s music for a non-stop teenaged dance party, heads-a-shaking and dandruff flying, while someone spikes the punch with a handful of old Jam singles (“International Rescue”) and “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon” looms like the Bangles on quaaludes.

All of which adds up to an album that, like past (and presumably future Chemistry Set albums), knows exactly what people expect to hear, and which still wanders off on its own sweet course.  “Crawling Back to You” might even be the best Kinks cover that Oasis never recorded, and if that’s not enough to make you run to pre-order it… well, that’s cos you’ve not heard “The Open Window.”  The Beatles were right… tomorrow never knew.

 

4Al Stewart

Orange

Past Present and Future

Modern Times

(Esoteric ECLEC 2514-2516)

Here’s a dilemma.  Sacrifice the last round of Al Stewart reissues, with their healthy helping of bonus tracks, but not precisely stellar sound; or eschew this most recent bundle, which skip a few of the extra songs from before, but return to the original CBS tapes for a remastering that comes as close as Christmas to sounding like the original vinyl?

That’s for your ears to decide, but the fact is, these are the best-sounding Stewart CDs yet, and the most enthrallingly packaged too, with the original UK artwork restored; liners built around a brand new interview; and, between them, a large part of any self-respecting “best of Al” that predates the cat.

Certainly it’s difficult to play favorites between them – Orange boasts “You Don’t Even Know Me,” “I’m Falling” and “Night of the 4th of May,” perhaps the all-time great mea culpa confessional (hit Youtube for the Old Grey Whistle Test rendition, and marvel in speechless joy), then adds the scintillating 45 version of “News From Spain” alongside the already wonderful album take.  Plus the b-side “Elvaston Place.”

PPF starts slowly but quickly finds its feet with “Last Day of June 1934,” “Post World War Two Blues” and the remarkable “Soho (Needless to Say),” before marching resolutely into epic territory with “Roads to Moscow” and “Nostradamus” – plus another stray single, “Swallow Wind” (and the 45 mix of “Terminal Eyes”); and Modern Times opens with “Carol,” closes with the title track, and … okay so if you only want two of the three reissues, that’s probably the one to pass over.  Like Zero She Flies, earlier in the canon, it’s the sound of Stewart pausing for breath after one brace of brilliance, and before marching onto his next masterpiece.

Which, on this occasion wasYear of the Cat, and all the fame and fortune that followed it.  And which was also something of a mixed blessing, in that that album and single were so astonishingly huge that they drew a thick black line across his career, and rendered all those earlier albums “formative” works in the eyes of the Great Unwashed.  When, in fact, it was simply one more highlight in a career that had positively overflowed with the things.

Three albums precede this batch in the catalog – among them a maiden effort (Bedsitter Images) that stands, in either of its originally released incarnations, among the most important, inspirational and, most of all, lasting of all late sixties singer-songwriter debuts; and a sophomore set whose subsequent renown is so unfairly focussed on the sidelong title track “Love Chronicles,” when it’s side one’s “Old Compton Street Blues” and “The Ballad of Mary Foster” that are truly its greatest accomplishments.

Hopefully we will be seeing similarly exacting reissues of both, plus the aforementioned Zero and many more besides.  But for now, to paraphrase another cut from Love Chronicles, you should be listening to Al.

 

5Michael Padilla

Atmospheres (Ambient Works Vol 1)

(Fruits de Mer STRANGEFISH 7)

The latest installment in FdM’s Strange Fish series of drifting, floating, darkening monolithic moods sees Michael Padilla step out of his Soft Bombs dayjob with four gentle soundscapes that… well, it’s easy for him to say he’d been listening to a lot of Eno’s Discreet Music at the time, but there’s a lot more going on here than simply serving up a crash course in Very Little Happening.

“Evolving soundscapes” is likewise an oft-abused term; Atmospheres, after all, does not so much evolve as proceed with glacial calm and finesse, building in corners that you don’t always notice, but – and this is the key – doing so from an angle that you would want to listen to in the first place, and while you do hang on to see what happens, you don’t really mind if nothing does.

Of course it’s all an acquired taste; too much ambient music sounds like someone just left the filter on the fish tank running on empty, and then dubbed on some bubbles as an afterthought.  But the opening “Northern Lights” feels like a night (or, at least, a quarter of an hour) in a cathedral, maybe waiting for the ghosts of Tangerine Dream to turn up; and the similarly epic “Ecstagony” belies its title by conjuring slow moving ships in never-shifting fog, that only gradually sense one another’s presence.

Or whatever other analogy you care to devise.  No matter.  As with any of the albums that you’d term the best in the ambient field (a company that Atmospheres effortlessly enters), an hour in its company is an evening well spent.  And, better yet, though the music is delivered via a startling picture disc, it also comes draped across a CD as well… because, as FdM admit, we all know how dodgy picture discs can sometimes sound.  So, play one, gaze at the other, and just dream….

 

6Beautify Junkyards

The Beast Shouted Love

(Mega Dodo DODOLP 12)

Second album time for Lisbon’s Junkyards, and if you remember any of the many lovely things that were said about their debut, rest assured that The Beast is even lovelier.

Opening with a slice of pure pastoral playfulness, kicking then into a tribute to the Canterbury scene that ranks, so unselfconsciously, among the band’s most comforting influences, The Beast Shouted Love remains beholden to that unexpected vein of electronica that has encouraged others to dub them “cosmic folk,” but still the eleven tracks herein take an almost childlike delight in simplicity.

Melodies are never painted in less than the sharpest relief, no matter what is going on in the background (and there’s a lot); vocals drift and dance, sometimes in duet, sometimes in isolation… moments might remind you of the Incredible String Band, lifted out of their time stream at the very peak of their peculiarities, and deposited in a field outside Lisbon, with instructions that no song should ever outstay its welcome.  (Oh, and they stole all Kraftwerk’s instruments, as well.)

Indeed, the Portuguese language “Pés na Areta na Terra do Sol” (“feet in the sand in the land of sun”) is over way too soon, but so swiftly does the intricate “Lake” take its place that it’s easy to forgive the transgression.

And so it is throughout an album whose every moment is in some ways miraculous, an alternate vision not simply of all that can be accomplished with the instruments at the band’s disposal, but with a vision so far removed from commonplace descriptions that… yeah, maybe “cosmic folk” fits the bill after all.

 

7Frank Zappa and the Mothers

Roxy – The Movie

(Eagle Vision 338219)

A generous double package, crowned by an almost two hour DVD/blu-ray live show, but attended, too, by a CD featuring twelve of the seventeen tracks in pristine sound.

And what does it all mean?  Only the long awaited, oft-promised, but never-scented story of the Mothers’ three night stint at the the newly-opened Roxy in Hollywood – hitherto documented on 1974’s The Roxy and Elsewhere, which itself is only partially duplicated here, and a few tempting video clips unleashed to promote other projects.

The liner notes detail the long and often convoluted tale of the movie’s gestation – how all nights of the residency were filmed, only for the equipment to suffer a major meltdown, leaving Zappa with some twenty-one hours (four eighty minute shows, each shot by four cameras) of unsynced sound, sped up film, technical torments and more or less every other snafu to which live footage is heir  And it’s taken this long… forty-one years… for technology to actually catch up enough to make the movie a reality.  By which time, of course, both Zappa and his wife, Gail, had passed away – the latter just this month, although at least she did live to see one of her husband’s greatest irritants finally resolved.

John Albarian’s liner notes fearlessly document the pains and perils of bringing the show to light and life, and it has to be said that he did a fantastic job.

Zappa aided him, of course; knowing the cameras would be on the band for four shows, he insisted that everyone wear the same clothes at each gig, to assure seamless continuity.  Four cameras were given strict instructions of what they should focus on, and there was no doubt that this was a concert movie pure and simple – no arty backstage antics, no meaningful non-sequiters to be dropped into the lens… and, of course, the Mothers at this point were scarcely the most theatrical of acts on the mid-70s circuit, so the emphasis is fully on the musicians and their musicianship.

The movie follows these instructions to the letter.  If a soloist is soloing, the camera sticks to him like glue.  No clever-clever cutaways, no wandering around to find something more interesting, no gratuitous pretty-girl-in-the-audience shots.  As Albarian’s liners say, “I wasn’t in the audience so I want to see them play.”

The set list offers few surprises, of course; “Cosmik Debris,” “Penguin in Bondage” (with its brief battery-failed-in-the vibrator tap), “Dog Breath Variations,” “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing”… a drab drum solo, so de rigueur in the age, of course, but a scintillating “I’m the Slime,” and so on and so forth for a movie that adds almost fifty percent more weight to the length of a single original gig and which could quite possibly be, as Albarian also suggests, the last great, unseen, period concert movie we’re ever going to be get.

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