Suede (or London Suede, as they were first known on these shores) should never have been as enormous as they were. Not because they didn’t deserve it – those first three albums, at least, remain unimpeachable.
They should not have been enormous because, of all the bands in the Britpop baggy, Suede were the one that most exquisitely captured the true essence of the term, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the rent-a-Cockney oiks and inbred singing electricians who likewise triumphed in the pop stakes.
Suede’s world was one of dark, rainswept streets and flickering neon window displays; barely-functional mattresses and habits you hid from your friends. Romance with the rough edges enhanced, a knee trembler in a garbage strewn alleyway, and a literary viewpoint draped languorously across Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” hallucinating Roxy’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache.”
So, less “Morning Glory” than late night liaison, less “Park Life” than dogging in a dark wood, and as for the Bowie comparisons that also flew their way, the early Al Stewart was a lot more apropos. Suede could never have come up with the next “Golden Years.” But they could have pulled off a magnificent “Old Compton Street Blues.”
Could… but didn’t. Whatever paths the band intended to take when they first stepped onto the stage, they were never going to follow them once that first album established them as the biggest thing since name-your-icon. Their second set, Dog Man Star, fought heroically to keep the stars in alignment, but its dismal reception left the band with no choice – change course or die,
So they changed course and then they died. Their third album, Coming Up, had its marvellous moments, but neither the succeeding Head Music nor A New Morning had much of anything in common with the band’s founding values, and when Suede split early into the 21st century, it was hard not to wonder what took them so long.
They reformed in 2010 and, three years on, released a tentative new album, Bloodsports. Night Moves followed, and they were definitely back on track. But The Blue Hour is the album that we’ve truly been waiting for… the album with which, if the climate had been different and the band had had the courage, Suede would have followed Dog Man Star into the mid-90s marketplace, and damn the torpedoes and blast the alarms. It would probably have bombed… in fact, of course it would. But this was where Suede were always headed; this was the album they were always going to make.
Gone but not forgotten are the prickly vignettes of the early hits; but gone, too, is any hint of the sonic restraint that circumstance forced them to show. The Blue Hour is as vast as it is symphonic, as bleak as it is beautiful, and if you’re one of those soulless automatons who thought they used to be pretentious, then you need to head for the hills right now.
What are The Blue Hour’s most obvious antecedents, in terms of intent if nothing else? Bowie’s Diamond Dogs is in there, simply because nobody in their right mind would chase their umpteenth successive chart-topper with such hopeless rancorous despair. Soft Cell’s The Art of Falling Apart. Ditto. The Sisters of Mercy’s Vision Thing. And, at the risk of invoking another of Britpop’ least likely heroes, Pulp’s This is Hardcore. Apocalypse as artform, a panic attack set to music. Yeah, that’ll get the pop toes a-tapping, and if the man-eating maggots were truly on the march, those are what they’d be playing on their iPods. Except they can’t afford iPods because they spent all their money on the rent, so they just sing songs about their own despair as they set about scheming yours’.
Again, if Suede had released a record like this in 1996, we’d still be looking for their graves. The fact that they waited so long might, then, diminish its impact a little. But it is only a little.
Fourteen tracks do not need to be individually examined. The Blue Hour is a seamless suite, a single shattering high locked on repeat and only ebbing and flowing when your own ears seize on a specific lyric, and replay the image till it’s tattooed on your heart: “The playgrounds are empty”… “we’ll run to the wastelands”… “beyond the outskirts”… “of all the wild places I love, you are the most desolate.” “I’ll curl up and die with your cold hands on me.”
Anderson’s personal lexicon has always posited him on the far side of whatever we refer to as the outside, but The Blue Hour goes further than that. “A flame in the lightless forest.” “Jump[ing] out of the page and over the wire.” Suede and hyperbole have often walked hand in hand, but the UK has already established The Blue Hour as the band’s highest charting album since 1999, and though that’s scarcely a high bar to somersault, it proves one thing above all others.
That, whatever pressures caused the band to do what they did back then, the faithful, at least, knew what they wanted from Suede. And they were more than willing to wait for it.
Victorian Wonders (CD, LP)
Acid! Psychedelia!! Sniffing Syd Barrett’s bike seat through the mouthpiece of Kevin Ayers’ giant poisoned electric Bonzo Dog mask!!! The Mighty Boosh!!!! And having got all that nonsense out of our system, come join us in that darkened garden that Octopus Syng made their own, and see how far they’ve travelled since we last dropped by.
This is the Finnish phenomenon’s sixth album, but even if you’ve been paying attention, it’s only fair to say that whatever parallels you stretched to draw last time will already have snapped by the time you unsleeve Victorian Wonders.
It’s a droll collection of songs, electric music hall vocals shot through with Bacharach harmonies and a steam-unpunky atmosphere that is conjured ineffably by percussive elements that feel like big things slithering, and guitars made out of heavy things clattering. There’s no overt sense of conceptual unity, but still Victorian Wonders binds its contents together artfully, an all-your-senses apparatus constructed from gaslit webs and sepia wanderers, and titles that evoke “One Day at Amusement Park.” Or break down “19th Century Romanticism,” with its ominous spoken word mid-rift, and a dogged refusal to play things forwards when backward masking works just as well.
In places (“Otto Rank is a Traitor”) you wonder if the band isn’t playing deliberately half speed, just to see what it makes the vocals do; in others (the first half of “Go Away Damn Rain Drops”), it feels as though a well-wrought pastoral landscape is being slowly obscured by an upturned bottle of oil. Imagine Ivor Cutler conducting the Mothers of Invention and you’re maybe getting warmer, but as “Sunday’s Jackdaws” flutters from the innocence of a childhood music box to the mayhem of a suddenly submerged carnival, you’re better off dreaming of oxygen tents.
Yes, there are sundry psych-era images littering the lyrics (“Spider Webs” especially so), but that’s a rod with which you can beat a lot of people, who’d beat you back for saying so. Far more to the point is Octopus Syng’s relentless refusal to allow Victorian Wonders to rest in any place for even as long as it might like to, and by the time the needle tracks to “These Precious Summer Nights,” you really don’t feel as though you’ve lived through the band’s new album. It’s more like you’re nearing the final chapter of a book that you barely understood… but you know you want to read again.
Nicely timed to coincide with the release of Faithfull’s latest album, this twenty-two track collections reaches back to her first and a few steps beyond, to uncover the eleven singles and one EP that she released throughout her first flood of activity. And it’s not too far of a stretch between the one and the other – both, for example, include versions of “As Tears Go By,” and it’s fascinating to hear how her interpretation has changed in the fifty-five (ouch!) years that passed between the two.
Faithfull’s early years are often seen as somehow throwaway, yet nothing here comes close to approving that tag, as she settled instead into a solid stream of releases (on both single and LP), marred only by the occasional stab at songs that didn’t really need to be stabbed… “Blowing in the Wind” and “Yesterday” stand out loudest there.
Elsewhere, however, hits “Come and Stay With Me,” “Summer Nights” and “This Little Bird” all stand as classics of their age, while her take on “House of the Rising Sun” is certainly one of the most effective to fall on this side of the Animals. The Go Away from my World EP is uniformly fabulous, and if later 45s “Tomorrow’s Calling,” “Counting” and “Is This What I Get For Loving You” did little chartwise, it wasn’t because they didn’t deserve it. True, the Faithful of the sixties (and, indeed, the bulk of the seventies) was a far cry from that which emerged at decade’s end (Broken English), but her voice grows stronger with every passing release and there’s no denying her confidence in her material, either.
The collection ends with what was, for many years, the most legendary of all her recordings, a 1969 b-side of “Sister Morphine,” credited at the time to Jagger-Richard only (her own name was added later), and that’s a shocker, too, indicative not only of how far Faithfull had traveled in five years, but how far the writers had, too. (The a-side, incidentally, was “Something Better,” performed by Faithfull at the Rock and Roll Circus.)
Released two years before the Stones’ own version, and even more haunting as well, “Sister Morphine” is another song Faithfull would revisit in later years, rerecorded for the b-side of her “Broken English” single. And that, a recounting of her later 45s, would make a fabulous companion to this set, should anyone feel disposed to compile it. For now, however, line this up alongside Negative Capability and you have one of the best sets of bookends of the year so far.
All Along the Watchtower/The Doors Of Perception (45)
Seems like it’s open season on “All Along the Watchtower” just lately. First, Afterhere’s almost spectral reutterance is hijacked as the theme to British TV’s latest adaptation of Vanity Fair. Next up, Jimi Hendrix’s hit rendering is remastered for the anniversary reissue of Electric Ladyland. And now nick nicely (yes, Mr Clever Editor, that’s how he prefers his name to be written) unearths four completely different ways of twisting it some more, and lets them all play at once.
There’s the acid guitar version. There’s the dreamy electro version. There’s the thunderous industrial version. And there’s the spoken word school teacher version, and between them they create such a teetering mass of sound that you’re halfway through and you’ve already forgotten that Bob Dylan once wrote this song.
Flip it over and the haphazard sound collage into which “Watchtower”so magnificently devolves continues on through a six minute original called “The Doors of Perception.” Which have indeed opened, but don’t think you’re going to find what you were expecting within. Parent label Fruits de Mer’s own blurb considers this one of the best singles “we’ve ever released,” and after ten years of generally peerless productions, that’s a very high mountain to scale. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that they might just be correct.
Double Dekker (CD)
It’s been a long wait for this one. Originally released in 1973, Double Dekker was a 27-track double album that opened… no surprises… with a handful of the “Israelites” hitmaker’s most familiar smashes. Three years had passed since Dekker was topping the UK chart, so clearly it was the nostalgia market that the label was aiming for.
For Dekker collectors, however, shrug off the poptones that grabbed the headlines, and you found yourself staring at maybe two-thirds of a package that rang no bells whatsoever… two regular albums worth of material that had simply never seen release in the past, despite being recorded at the peak of both Dekker’s career and that of producer Leslie Kong.
Double Dekker was simply littered with the unfamiliar and – unlike so many other collections of such material – the vast majority of it was as strong as anything that was released. Might, in a few cases, have even extended Dekker’s chart career beyond the span it actually enjoyed. There’s definitely some unsung jewels on board, and those are the tracks that dominate here.
Retaining just one of the original album’s major hits, “It Miek,” and a handful more from lesser-feted 45s, this reissue sensibly dispenses with the tracks that probably every Dekker fan on the planet already owns a few times over, replacing them with another rare b-side (“Generosity”), and five more tracks that made it onto a second Dekker rarity collection, 1997’s First Time for a Long Time CD. The result is an album that, no matter how many Desmond Dekker CDs you already own, will make you feel like you’ve just bought a new one. And not, as is usually the case, the same old, all over again.
Telegraph Hill (CD/LP)
(You Are The Cosmos)
If you know Jack Ellister from his Fruits de Mer catalog, Telegraph Hill… well, it won’t be a shock. But it will surprise you, and very pleasantly so, as he steps away from what are traditionally termed the psych sounds and influences of his last couple of albums, and delves instead into predominantly acoustic pastures.
Lone voice and guitar (and the occasional extra… there’s a didgeridoo on the epic “Condor”) are the album’s loudest calling cards, even when intros and interludes threaten something different. “High Above Our Heads” and the instrumental “Mind Maneuvers” would not have felt out of place in past times, and the regrettably brief “Maureen Feeding the Horses” could be a Frippertronic soundscape if it weren’t for a brief taste of Anglo-folky melody percolating beneath. It could almost be Current 93-y, if you really want to know.
But “Fill Another Glass,” “Telegraph Hill” and “Reminder” shape the all-acoustic EP that Ellister originally set out to make, and here we hear him moving into regions that drift deliciously close to classic Roy Harper or Michael Chapman.
There is that same sense of drama in the sparseness of the home studio production, and the same sense of pages turning in a gloriously convoluted novel. Until you reach the closer, the aforementioned “Condor,” which is a sparkling, super-insistent mantra that succeeds in both remaining constant and spinning off in different directions, all at the self-same time.
It’s a short album – between them, “Mind Maneuvers” and “Condor” are effectively as long as the other seven tracks put together, and the whole thing is over in under half an hour. But it’s certainly time well spent, and it really doesn’t need to be longer. Unless there’s a sidelong “Condor” sitting in the archives somewhere?
Meltdown (3 CDs + Blue-ray)
Across the first five years of their existence, King Crimson released two live albums. Across the most recent five, they’ve released close to one hundred and, while the majority can only be purchased en masse, courtesy of a series of leviathan era-specific box sets, a shelf-hogging stream of current line-up recordings have also vied for your attention. Meltdown is Crimson’s sixth physical live release in four years, and there’s a wealth more to be found in download form on their website. And one begins to wonder… how do you decide which one of them to actually play?
All, after all, pack variations on much the same set list, which itself stands as Crimsonic greatest hits collection, moving from first album favorites like “Epitaph” and “21st Century Schizoid Man,” through to the latest team’s most recent prolusions. And while it’s true that the likes of “The Hell Hounds of Krim” and “Devil Dogs of Tessellation Row” are the most fun if you like drum solos, still they punctuate the performance with such energy and excitement that it’s hard to begrudge their appearance.
This latest set was recorded in Mexico City in July 2017 by what Robert Fripp’s liners describe as “the Eight-Headed Beast of Crim… my fourth Definitive Formation,” to follow similarly-ranked editions from 1969, 1974 and, oddly, 1981. And that’s what distinguishes it from past recordings of the current Crim, in that it’s our first full-length souvenir of what Fripp has also described as “the best band I’ve been in, musically, personally, professionally.”
Three discs and a beautifully shot Blu-ray of further highlights allow one quickly to appreciate the reasons behind Fripp’s enthusiasm. This same line-up has been captured before, on the 2CD Live in Chicago, recorded the month before the Mexico dates. But that was just one night’s work, with any attendant flaws and flukes left untouched. Drawing this time from five successive shows allowed producer Bill Rieflin to truly seek out perfection, and while there may be better performances of the occasional song lurking elsewhere within the recorded canon, as an overall package, this is more or less the only recent Crimson live album you really, really need.
Except “the only one” is not a concept that the average Crimson fan will ever accept. And so we file Meltdown alongside Chicago, Toronto, the Orpheum, Vienna and Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind, and all the downloads that appeal to the ears as well, and we accept what has always felt like a truth, even when the band was dormant. King Crimson are probably the most consistently brilliant live band of the past fifty years. And if you don’t agree with that, just wait. There’ll be another concert album along soon enough, and that’ll make you see the light, you watch.
King Size Reggae (CD)
Two more volumes within Doctor Bird’s seemingly ceaseless quest to restore to the racks every budget priced compilation that Trojan Records released at the end of the sixties, but three CDs of period sound that also include a Tommy McCook LP that was only ever released in Canada.
Reggay At Its Best essentially comprises instrumental versions of otgher artists’ recent hits, performed by McCook and his Supersonics, and produced by Duke Reid. It’s not, to be truthful, the most exhilarating album, which might be why it’s been tucked away in a twofer with the far more powerful Greater Jamaica. It’s its rarity that makes its reissue worthwhile. But no less than twenty bonus tracks complete the accompanying disc’s thirty-strong selection of further period Reid productions, a dozen of which comprised Greater Jamaica, while the rest ricocheted out on singles, both in Jamaica and elsewhere.
John Holt, Dave Barker, the Ethiopians, Justin Hinds, Winston Wright, the Silvertones, the Melodians, Girl Satcho, Porky and Naomi (a fabulous “Lipstick on your Collar”), Errol Dunkley… the thrills just pile up, one atop the other, and it matters not that the majority are scarcely numbered among the era’s biggest hits. The sheer joy of hearing so many forgotten 45 rocketing out of the speakers like this isn’t simply compulsive, it’s addictive.
King Size Reggae, of course, maintains that momentum. Focusing this time on the productions of Leslie Kong, the bulk of the original album is joined by nineteen bonus tracks, and while one could probably live quite happily without ever hearing Bruce Ruffin’s versions of “Cecilia” (Simon and Garfunkel) and “Candida” (Dawn), there’s more than enough included elsewhere to, again, illustrate just how creative Kingston’s studios were throughout this period. And how grateful we should be to Doctor Bird, for letting us hear it all once more.
There’s another Residents album out. Again.
Like King Crimson, mentioned above, recent years have seen the Residents break out of their recent shell with splendid disregard for the niceties of the household budget. Between the classic reissues, the 80 Aching Orphans box set and the how-do-you—describe-it I Am a Resident, the eyeballs have released more in the last couple of years than they’ve delivered all decade, with Intruders following last year’s The Ghost of Hope into the realms of brand new music.
As is so often the case, it’s loosely conceptual – “Inspired by the persistence of obsession, ‘Intruders’ are seen as alternate beings stalking the corners of our consciousness… pivot[ing] around the unseen and the uncontrollable spirits stuck in the seams of our minds. Whether it’s ghosts, angels, aliens, ex-lovers or an angry old woman with a bittersweet smile, we never know who or what will wedge itself into the darker recesses of our minds. Hated, loved, or merely tolerated, we all have Intruders.” Or so it says here.
The accompanying booklet delves deeper, and offers lyrics and illustrations, too; the music, meanwhile, follows The Ghost of Hope in leaning towards eerie swamp-stained melancholy, with a little rockabilly in some places (“Voodoo Doll”); psych in others (“The Scarecrow”); Tom Waits in others still (“Running Away”); and lashings of spooky spoken word (“Good Vibes”)…
Not for the first time in their career, then, we find the Residents mining that particular vein of Americana that hangs out on the edges of freak shows and carnivals, flickering in the corner of your eye and putting sound to the shadows you’re not even aware you’re surrounded by (the ultra-eerie “Endless and Deep”). And not for the first time, we find ourselves torn between the need to just keep on collecting their every release, and the knowledge that there are some albums that we probably won’t return to, too often. Where Intruders falls on that scale is up to you. Suffice to say, there’s another Residents album out. Again.
We Feel Fine/Down at Circe’s Place/We Finally Met Today (45)
(Fruits de Mer)
Forty years. Is that the longest any band has ever taken to release a follow-up single? Particularly one that’s drawn from the same LP as its predecessor. Twas 1969 when Portland psych warlords Touch released their first 45 “Miss Teach,” and it’ll probably be 2019 before even the most ardent pre-order receives a copy of their sophomore 45 (which plays at 33, but let’s not be silly). And in between times…
Well, Touch are long gone, but Fruits de Mer founder Keith Jones rates their eponymous debut album among the Ur-documents of his own love of psych, so it makes sense, as the label enters its eleventh year on the planet, that he should share his love with the rest of us.
In truth, “We Feel Fine” might be just a little too loud and shouty to really be wrapped into a tasty psych-burger… at least in places. Imagine playing a Uriah Heep 8-Track, knowing that someone tried taping the early Bee Gees over it, and their tones will soon be drifting into earshot, right before the tape starts playing backwards, and the whole thing descends into the kind of clever-clogs-proggy-disonance for which the term “an acquired taste” was surely invented in the first place. Vanilla Fudge have a lot to answer for.
Another original album track, “Down at Circe’s Place,” plus the subsequently exhumed “We Finally Met Today” fill side two, and they too pursue Touch’s taste for never playing the same song for more than thirty seconds, before trying out something else entirely. A distended King Crimson riff, maybe. Or some over-amplified Deep Purple jam. Whatever, it’s not something you’ll be able to play particularly quietly, so just evacuate the street, set your freak flag to stun and we’ll see you on the other side of Saturnalia. Or thereabouts.
Though he was still moving towards the heights of sonic mayhem that would ultimately become Lee Perry’s best-known calling card, two albums dating from the dawn of his upsetting career nevertheless serve notice that he was definitely up to something.
Indeed, The Upsetter was Perry’s first LP as an independent producer, organ heavy but already littered with the little tricks and traps that would soon become Perry’s forte. Singles like “(Dangerous) Man from MI5” and “Night Doctor” still regularly turn up in Perry best-of collections, and there’s many more on board that could join them.
Scratch The Upsetter Again followed in 1970, by which time Perry had already scored his first UK hit (“Return of Django”), and seen a second LP, titled for the hit, released (and subsequently reissued by Doctor Bird).
That, however, was a hastily compiled mass of singles and Upsetter album tracks; Again was Perry’s own vision of his second album, and it is easy to see the progression… “Mule Train,” with a veritable wagonful of animal noises, is gloriously bizarre; “The Result” could almost be seen as a percursor of dub. About which, of course, Perry would have a great deal to say in future years.