The Honey Pot
(Fruits de Mer 2LP)
One hundred releases in eight years. More by the time you read this. Fruits de Mer has established itself among the most resiliant, not to mention tenacious, record labels of the twenty-first century, and what better way to celebrate than with a colored vinyl double album helmed by one of the label’s best-loved bands; featuring a bunch of their equally-adored label mates, and loaded down with the very same recipe that has made the past ninety-nine releases so successful - a clutch of classic covers, and a hoard of originals that could be classic covers.
And a few extra guests as well.
Begin at the beginning. James Lowe of the Electric Prunes eases us in with his memories of the year 1969, then tells the story, too. But “1969” isn’t the album’s statement of intent, no matter how deeply embroiled within that year (or at least that era) the FdM ethic might seem.
Chronological markers do flicker and flutter, but this is no exercise in either nostalgia nor revivalism. And neither could it be, as the likes of Cary Grace (fronting a phenomenal remake of the Rattles’ “The Witch”), Judy Dyble and Us and Them (an equally great, if contrarily heartbreaking, “Sitting All Alone”); Gregory Curvey (“Lucky Spaceman”)… two thirds of July, one half of Buggles, “Dr Crippen’s Waiting Room” and a ghostly take on the Strawberry Alarm Clock… layer vivacious imaginings over everything. And the realization suddenly hits home. With the Honey Pot’s own Crystal Jacqueline joining Dyble, Grace and Britt Rönnholm in the role call above, you’ve got four of the most far-sighted and fine singers of the entire age kicking about, and that’s only across disc one.
Surprise of the show has to be Bernstein’s “America,” recreated from Keith Emerson’s Nice-age rearrangement, and remodeled so subtly that it takes a moment for its sheer audacity to kick in. Then there’s Bevis Frond riding on the “Time Machine,” and the Buggled “Into the Deep,” which consumes ten minutes of playing time and still doesn’t feel long enough.
There were a lot of ways FdM could have celebrated the anniversary and, considering some of the releases that got them to this point (a boxed set of flexidiscs, a Hollies tribute album, and enough colored vinyl to open a carpet factory), a simple double album feels somewhat restrained.
But cast your mind back thirty-some years, to the first LP by This Mortal Coil… a loosely-themed collective of label mates and passing friends, new compositions and favorite covers, and - again - some of the most remarkable vocalists of the day. TMC and 4AD never managed to follow it up… so THP and FdM did it for them.
Happy birthday, fish face.
Thinking Inside the Box
(Cherry Red/Anagram - 4CD box)
Yes, I know it’s generally frowned upon to review a box set for which you wrote the liner notes, but seriously. It’s not the few thousand words that buffer the (fabulous!) illustrations in the accompanying booklet that you should be caring about here. It’s the fact that, for the first time ever, the complete and utter history of Radio Stars has been told. And it only required four CDs to do it.
The bare bones. Radio Stars grew out of Jet, a latter-day glam band featuring vocalist Andy Ellison (ex-John’s Children) and bassist Martin Gordon (ex-Sparks) plus, in their even latter days, guitarist Ian Macleod. And they remained the core of the band, buffeted by a constantly shifting string of drummers, but resolute, too, in their quest for…
What did Radio Stars want? Even at the height of punk, songs about obscene photographs, Gerald Ford’s misquotes and muddled Greek menus were scarcely the height of topicality; and, in a world framed by such unforgettable chants as “gabba gabba hey,” “we’re so pretty” and “glad to be gay,” a complicated piece of medical imaging equipment was unlikely ever to compete.
Except they were, and it was. “Dirty Pictures,” the band’s first single; “No Russians in Russia,” their second, and “Macaroni and Mice” (from the first album) remain immortal memories, while “electro-encephalograph” (from “Nervous Wreck”) has to be one of the longest words ever to feature in a UK Top Thirty hit single. And then there was dead Elvis, who became dead Arthur to avoid upsetting the recently-bereaved Presleyphiles, and “The Beast of Barnsley” who remained a beast, even after the real thing’s family issued a complaint. And “From a Rabbit,” which was all about body building. And “Sex in Chains,” which was all about Mormon missionaries. And.. and… and…
…and a live show which was one of the most exciting of the age, particularly when Ellison clambered to the top of the PA and left you wondering… will he jump back down to the stage and land on his knees? Or will he swing from the lighting rig first? It’s a shame there’s no video to go with the live tracks (from a BBC broadcast) that dominates disc four. But, if you listen carefully, you can hear the crowd wince.
Four discs. The first two are dedicated to the band’s two albums; the third rounds up singles and rarities, not only from the group’s original lifespan, but also their brief re-emergence in the early 1980s. When “The Ghost of Desperate Dan” proved they were as weird (in a good way) as ever. And the fourth, as you know, is the BBC tapes, three sessions and a,live show from summer ’77, that wraps up with “Johnny Mekon” - quite possibly the greatest heavy metal punk ode to terminally declining rock stars ever written.
(Medium Lavender - download)
Shifting out of the really-rather-wonderful Sky Picnic, Hanford Reach are Chris Sherman and Leah Cinnamon, a duo who seem not simply to have been raised on early 90s shoegaze, but to have taken it upon themselves to reinvent it.
If you’re familiar with the original movement, there’s nothing here that will jar your sensibilities. At the same time, though, Hanford Reach have an eye for the guitar-crunchy discordance that lay at the heart of its better elements, and a percussive edge that does step into new planes.
Four songs open with the roiling (and aptly titled) “Shifting Patterns”; moves up another gear with “Muted Edge” which, contrarily, is not muted at all; holds the moment through “Theatre of Shadows”; and then goes hell-for-gossamer with the gentle “Daydream Hues.”
All of which adds up to a little under twenty minutes of exhilarating electricity, and an insuppressible urge to dig out those old Loop and Valentines records. This is what they grew up to become.
Too Many Crooks
One More Tomorrow
(Cherry Red/Esoteric - CD)
Following on from Esoteric’s recent reissue of Unicorn’s 1974 second album (their debut, recorded for Transatlantic three years earlier, remains unavailable), the remainder of the band’s career now arrives, in the same expanded and remastered editions, and again reminding us just what a great band this was. With or without the on-cover sticker that reminds us who produced and guested on them both.
Released in 1976, Too Many Crooks is the band’s masterpiece, with at least two tracks - “No Way Out of Here” and the kind-of-jokey “Bullseye Bill,” such insistent earworms that it’s still unimaginable that neither was selected as a single. There again, “Disco Dancer” wasn’t a bad substitute, and it appears among the bonus tracks, alongside its album counterpart. An out-take and a great live studio session, recorded for radio promotion, complete the package, and it still seems absurd that Too Many Crooks didn’t break Unicorn’s not-quite-west coast country sound out across the nation.
Instead, they retreated again for a couple of years, then re-emerged in 1977 with One More Tomorrow… by which time, of course, there were none, at least in their homeland. Punk had arrived to devour all the headlines, and while a couple of singles did leak out (their b-sides are among the bonus tracks), the album never felt like it had a chance.
Plus, covering a Creedence song for the opening cut was scarcely the most self-confident decision, particularly since (as the liners reveal), it was the label’s decision, not the band's. Neither was the distinct change in direction that sprang from another record company brainwave… “hey, let’s drop a few of the songs that Dave Gilmour produced (ooops, what a give-away) and make you sound like Pablo Cruise, instead.”
When it’s good, it’s as good as a lot of Blue Pine Trees and half of Too Many Crooks. And when it isn’t, it’s simply unmemorable.
The bonus tracks here are a mish-mash, the aforementioned b-sides joined by an out-take, another radio promo and three demos recorded across a six year span, in 1973, 1977 and 1979. But they complete the story and now we hope only that someone will go back to the beginning, and give us 1971’s Uphill All The Way. Because on that occasion, the title was true.
Songs from the First Album by Egg
(Fruits de Mer - LP)
You think he’s kidding? You think nobody, least of all a Polish multi-instrumentalist haunting the deepest recesses of YouTube, would sit down to record a large chunk of the debut album by a Canterbury combo best remembered for spawning Hatfield & the North? You think….
Wrong. Discovered indeed on Youtube, and hastily snapped up by Fruits de Mer, Songs from the First Album by Egg is, indeed, a faithful cover of a side-and-a-half of Egg, the debut album by the band that had just shed the young Steve Hillage when they got the chance to record it. And it’s pressed on poached-egg colored vinyl, so you’re going to want it for that alone.
As instrumental as it ought to be, Songs from… opens (as did the album) with “While Growing My Hair” and “I Will Be Absorbed,” before skipping on to that most wonderfully titled of all the band’s songs, “The Song of McGillicudie the Pusillanimous (Or Don’t Worry James, Your Socks are Hanging in the Coal Cellar with Thomas)” (why don’t people come up with titles like that anymore?), complete with ferocious percussion and an organ that sounds like a very bad-tempered Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
The full side-two-devouring “Symphony No.2” follows, and if there’s one criticism that can be thrown at Songs from…, it’s that moments are so close to the original that you could easily mistake it for almost-the-real-thing. But that’s also an advantage; music like Egg’s had a hard enough time reaching the rest of the world in the first place. Maybe, finally, it’s time has come.
Lilacs out of Darkness
(Bandcamp - 2LP, CD, download)
Two themed platters from the band that never stops releasing new music… “Yin,” on the one disc, extols the gentler side of Sendelica, and feels like an early Orb album without the narcolepsy; two twenty minute tracks that build, drift, trail and whisper, and reduce you to a puddle on the mat behind Cheryl Beer’s spectral vocals. And “Yang,” which draws out their louder urges and sounds an awful lot like - well, classic Sendelica, really.
“Kenopsia” is the first of three shorter (four to five minute) excursions into those places that the Welsh band know best, sax led and solidly mantric; but it’s the delightfully titled “Staring at Fainting Goats” that pushes its way most abruptly into the realm of Sendelica’s all-time classics, ten minutes (that should be more) aboard a spaceship being piloted into the sun by the barbarian hordes. And then there’s “Dancing to Dante’s Inferno,” whose title alone tells you what to expect, and which doesn’t disappoint. Especially as that has to be the ghost of Hawkwind’s “Master of the Universe” rattling around the opening minutes.
Brilliant. As always.
(Fruits de Mer - 45)
And there’s more! Zappa is a split 45, one side apiece, tackling a couple of Frank’s greater hits… “Peaches en Regalia” (Superfjord) and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (Sendelica)… and which sends the mind racing towards how great it would be if the entire FdM roster combined to rerecord Freak Out. But only if Astralasia (who also have a new album out - Oceania… it’s great) do “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet.’
Both cuts are, simultaneously, deliciously faithful and delightfully idiosyncratic - Superfjord race through “Peaches” with startling élan, all slick licks and freeze-frame riffola; while Sendelica fool you into thinking they left their instruments in another room before what they describe as a “Sabbath-like… juggernaut”) rolls into the room and transforms the main riff into a crash course in brain surgery.
More of the same, please!
Sly & Robbie
Present the Taxi Gang in Disco Mix Style 1978-1987
(Bear Family/Cree - CD)
Maybe it’s just me, but it’s impossible to hear a reggae retake of “Rainy Night in Georgia” without Prince Buster’s “Big Five’ leering its way into the room. But maybe not so much now, as Tinga Stewart turns in what we might call a more conventional cover… albeit one that is weighted down by the mighty Sly and Robbie, a terrific vocal take that edges ever so sweetly into a balls-out bullworking dub.
And that’s just track one.
There are no words for how magnificent this collection is - eight solid Taxi discomixes that dig into the studio’s late seventies fascination with American soul and disco, spreading out across “Fever” (Marcia Griffiths), “Break Your Promise” (Barry Biggs), “Show and Tell” (Ken Boothe),“Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” (Home T-Y) and “Inner City Blues” (Delroy Wilson)…. So titles and artists alone let you know what you’re in for, and with “Rainy Night,” at a mere 6.54, the shortest track in sight, you can imagine the rest. Or feel it in the pit of your stomach.
Pick of the bunch is probably “Sexual Healing,” Jimmy Riley’s ever-sweet vocal flowing across the rhythm track, before the rhythmatists themselves take control, a solid four minutes that strip the earlier lushness to its root and then rebuild from the echo-chamber up.
But Junior Moore (of the Tamlins) runs it close, Curtis Mayfield’s “You Must Believe Me” all slinking insistence and insistent falsetto before powering down to an almost glacial dub, every element hanging in the air, each one riding the shockwaves of the others.
For all the popularity and influence of full dub albums, there is something extra special about sets like this, combining both vocal and versioned takes into one seamless package. And, because it's very hard indeed to go wrong with Sly and Robbie (provided you stick to their seventies work… things can get a little dodgy after that), you know the package will always be worth unwrapping.
A Year in the Country
The Marks upon the Land / Wild Hope Flowers / The Dark Chamber
(A Year in the Country - download, CD)
Two EPs (the latter-named pair) and one full album offer up three very different explorations of, indeed, the marks that man has made on the land, as seen through the eyes of United Bible Studies’ David Colohan and Richard Moult. Wild Hope Flowers is the gentle, mystic face, a self-described “elegy for layered histories” that is both sparse and fulfilling, despite its four tracks barely amounting to five minutes of music. Think Peter Hammill in his most reflectively skeletal guise, and it will not disappoint.
The Dark Chamber is, naturally, darker. Designed as a soundtrack to an accompanying book of associated photography, its four instrumentals are portentous but powerful, ranging from the percussive clatter of “Towards the Heart” to the shutter-wracked soundscapes of “The Dark Chamber” itself (present twice, for reasons that listening will quickly make clear.)
And then there is Airwaves: Songs from the Sentinels, an album that blends the moods and momentum of both EPs into an aural exploration of what it must sound like to rise above the earth, and hear everything that is going on beyond the range of hearing. Snatches of radio percolate around the slowly shifting themes, mysterious crackles and sudden sideslips, a symphony in which nothing happens, but an awful lot takes place.
The Daughters of Grief
Songs for Mary WS
(Reverb Worship - CD/download)
Produced and accompanied by Hare and the Moon’s Grey Malkin, Songs for Mary WS is an irresistibly gorgeous five song EP dedicated (in case the title didn’t tip you off) to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and clearly inspired by her, as well. Vocals hang on just this side of gentle, soft against an acoustic wash, but the cumulative effect is wonderfully disquieting - particularly through “White Swan,” a track that simply shivers in isolation, while the singular Daughters’ voice drips from the rafters.
You could, if you really want to play that game, throw in comparisons to Kate Bush in her less shock-headed preternaturalist moments, but that’s really in the ear of the beholder, because Let’s Eat Grandma are close as well, particularly if you hide all their instruments.
Just try it. You’ll be snared.
(Roogalator DALP 21 - CD)
Forty years (more-or-less) on from his debut album, as the mainstay of the marvelous Roogalator, and fifty on from the birth of his career, Cincinnati guitarist Danny Adler kicks off his latest with a song that could be theme song for everyone who’s been at it for as long as he has… “been there, done that, got the T-shirt and sold it in a yard sale. But I’m still coming back for more.”
It grabs you from the start, a primal Stonesy groove that refuses to acknowledge any of the nonsense that certain other bluesy veterans think their age allows them to get away with - Adler’s career has seen him work with artists as far afield as reggae maestro Niney, Charlie Watts' jazz combo, the Deluxe Blues Band and Bootsy Collins. But if there’s any true point of reference, it’s the Pretty Things, the only other act of similar vintage that, quite frankly, doesn’t give a damn what you think, so long as you listen in the first place.
Jokey references to Roogalator’s archaeology in the break complete the opener’s treat; then it’s into “Trees of Avondale,” a piece of rootsy Americana if it had been invented by the Byrds (or the Left Banke), not the Band, while “Autumn Road” seriously feels like the Kinks if they’d roped in a passing drunk to sing lead, without teaching him the song. It’s utterly disconcerting, and utterly glorious.
“Grungie 66” opens with stately sixties blue piano and sticks with it, while Adler’s cover of the Beatles’ “Rain” retains all the original’s psychedelic tracings, layered around a guitar that won’t say no. And then there’s Willie Dixon’s “Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover,” one of two bona fide blues covers on board (the other is “Baby, What You Trying To Do”), a Diddley-edged hoedown that feels like it could have been recorded live, so rough’n’raw are the guitars and interjections.
Forty years, fifty years, it’s all immaterial. Either a new album feels like it’s new, or it doesn’t, simple as that. So let me tell you about this hot new guitar-slinging kid out of Ohio. His name’s Danny Adler. This is his first LP and you’re gonna love him.
Dodson & Fogg
Five Songs from the Cave
(Wisdom Twins - download)
Five songs, indeed, cut from much the same cloth as the one-man-two-name-band’s last full album, and that can only be a good thing. “Always Wanting More” is especially well-titled, particularly as it bubbles along on neat guitar flickers and a positively locomotive acoustic bed; while “Cloud of Clowns” is the sort of song that makes you wish it was 1971 again, with D&F lamenting out of every bedsit in town. Because they would be.
(Cherry Red/Esoteric - CD)
Available separately, but born to be heard together, former Gong/future Hawkwind synthwhizz Tim Blake’s first two solo albums have been in and (mainly) out-of-print for way too long. Released, respectively, in 1977 and 1978, they fall firmly into that same broad pond of electronica that would (thanks to Tangerine Dream) eventually be labeled New Age - although that is far too simple-minded a bracket for music this purposeful, potent and, most of all, thought-provoking.
Think early Jean Michel Jarre, if he’d not been afraid of lyrics and melody; or the Tangs, again, if they’d not gone wandering off on whichever hideous tangent that eventually devoured them. Think Cyrille Verdeaux’s Clearlight (on which, of course, Blake was a guest)… or think Blake’s showcases on the Gong LPs, and then expand them in vast new directions.
Crystal Machine is the least fulfilled of the pair, a collection of live and studio recordings cut over a period of two or three years; it’s a great album, and had the follow-up not been so perfect, it would certainly rate among the decade’s most essential electronic excursions.
But New Jerusalem, from its epic, side-long title track on down, is nothing short of genius, and all the more so if you overlook the now-familiarity of that title track’s lyric and remember, at the time, this was exciting new information… the first, less-than-cult stirrings of, again, one of the new age movement’s most potent strands.
Both albums arrive with bonus tracks; two out-takes plus the super-scarce “Surf” single (by the Saratoga Space Messengers) on Crystal Machine; three more unheard odds on New Jerusalem, including two fresh epics, “From Outer Space” and “Jupiter to Jerusalem,” which between them add some thirty-five extra minutes to the original album’s playing time. And could, were one inclined, be effortlessly slotted into the main attraction itself.
Esoteric’s usual excellent liners and attention to detail complete the packages. Now all you have to do is buy them. Together, if you please.