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Claire Hamill gets her mojo back, and more (to rave about)

"A Pocketful of Love Songs," "Alice in Wonderland, the best of '81 compilation and Toyah in concert ... What better way to start the new year?
Claire-Hamill_APFOLS_COVER

Claire Hamill

A Pocketful of Love Songs

(Archway Music CD)

If you’ve never heard Claire Hamill’s version of “Go Now,” off you trot, give it a spin (it's below), and then come back in a few minutes. Because then you’ll know why her latest album, almost 50 years on from that, is such a joy.

“I Got My Mojo Back!” she declares, four songs into her first new album in three years. And maybe longtime listeners will question if there has ever been a time when she lost it (the answer is no). Nevertheless, there’s a sense of joyous rebirth and excitement permeating A Pocketful of Love Songs, and it doesn’t even matter that, across four albums through the first half of the 1970s, Hamill was one of the key singer-songwriters of the age. Because she still is.

A bit of background. That aforementioned debut quartet, One House left Standing and October for Island and Stage Door Johnnies and Abracadabra for Ray Davies’s Konk, are those rare beasts in any genre, albums that are simultaneously both absolutely “of their time” and exquisitely timeless.

Yes, there’s been at least a couple of lengthy hiatuses since then. But a string of subsequent albums (not to mention her time in front of Wishbone Ash) proved that neither distance or silence had taken a toll on the talent that gave us “Sidney Gorgeous” and “The Phoenix,” way back when. Indeed, just a few months back, Hamill’s Facebook page featured a recent concert performance of “Warrior of the Water,” from her second album, and the years didn’t need to reel away. We were bodily transplanted, time and place.

And so to A Pocketful of Love Songs — which basically is exactly what its 11 tracks represent. Buoyant throughout, exquisitely arranged and perfectly paced, it places Hamill in front of a fuller accompaniment than fans of those earliest albums might expect — but it works.

Vocally, too, she remains powerful, and if nothing here precisely recaptures the innocence of “Baseball Blues,” or the seduction of “Stage Door Johnnies,” — why would they? What she does retain, and has maybe even improved upon, is the ability to make every lyric count; to bring the right emotion to the fore, be it inference or declaration, wry observation or utter excitement. Singing the song and living it, too, sharing the moment as much as the emotion; and, in the process, delivering an album packed with so many highlights that its almost churlish to try and choose one.

But “This Woman is a Mess” is such classic Hamill… lyrically, vocally, musically… that, if you have been away for a few decades, this might be your way back in. If, on the other hand, you’re joining the party for the first time, just start with “Aphrodite Obscured” and follow the story as she tells it.

  

2

Various artists

1981 - All Out Attack!

(Captain Oi - 3 CDs)

The latest in the good Captain’s era-encompassing history of punk, one volume per year until the fun turns sour, 1981 might not initially strike the average listener as a highwater mark in the music’s story. The first generations of bands had either sundered, sunk or were straggling on to increasingly diminishing returns… a handful of brighter sparks had put punk behind them… and few among the acts that had arisen to take their place felt as essential as those that kicked things off in the first place.

And so it is here, as the likes of Chelsea, the Damned, the Ramones, the UK Subs, Stiff Little Fingers and the Boys rip along on their own private tangents, with the band name very often their only link to the furies of ’77. A solo Steve Diggle steps in for the now-broken Buzzcocks; Knox for the vanquished Vibrators, the Professionals for part of the Pistols.

The thing is, though, they were still making some great records. The Wanderers, an Anglo-American hybrid of the Dead Boys (vocalist Stiv Bators) and Sham 69 (the rest of the band) cut two singles and one album in 1981, all of which are frequently described as essential by the handful of people who noticed at the time… a lot of what the Lords of the New Church became was blueprinted here, and “Ready To Snap” is as tensely dynamic as it ought to be.

TV Smith’s Explorers, led by former Advert Smith, with a Doctor of Madness on bass guitar, were likewise one of the year’s brightest sparks… in concert, in fact, they were the brightest, scouring the UK’s pubs and clubs with a set full of some of Smith’s finest ever songs. Again, one album (andt four singles) was all we have to show for their magnificence, and “The Servant” — the second in that sequence — is nothing less than a slab of unremitting joy. Even if it is sandwiched in the running order here between Zounds and Abrasive Wheels.

Yes, no less than across the 1980 installment, Oi! is the prevalent power here, as Blitz, The Exploited and Infa Riot kicks things off on disc one; Chron Gen, the Upstarts, the Anti Nowhere League (the immortal “So What” — the epitome of NSFW listening), the Partisans, Discharge and more lurk later across the three discs, alongside the growing impression that a sense of humor was as much a part of the modern punk ethic as anything else.

No more than half a dozen songs here could be filed under “novelty’ if you were feeling so inclined, but there’s a light-hearted feel to many, many more, as if the political commitment that once hallmarked punk’s public face has been twisted now into satire. Thus, with a lot of other bands poking at society and its inhabitants in general (Action Pact’s ‘London Bouncers” is a bagful of memories on its own), 1981 feels less like compilation album, and more like a digest of the year’s most irreverent newspaper stories. Which might well be an even more valuable commodity.

  

3

Toyah

Live at the Rainbow

(Cherry Red CD/DVD)

Originally released as a VHS video in 1981, capturing Toyah at the very peak of her early '80s triumphs, fans have been calling out for a digital equivalent for years now… and finally it’s here.

Spread across two discs, with the full VHS performance on DVD, and the entire concert (four songs longer, plus three further bonus tracks) on CD, Live at the Rainbow is both a captivating performance and a curious time capsule - a reminder of a time, to begin with, when Toyah was considered a weird looking lady, and a weird sounding one as well. These days, you see more dramatic costumes working in banks, and hear stranger voices reading the news.

Shove such thoughts aside, however, and the DVD, in particular, illustrates just what a dynamic performer Toyah was, with a repertoire that danced closer to the edge than many far more feted left fielders, and a stage presence that pushed her leagues ahead, again, of the competition. Indeed, enjoyable though the audio disc is, it’s the DVD to which you will continually return, simply to bask in the sheer delight of the show.

  

4

Neuschwanstein

Alice In Wonderland

(Explore Rights Management, CD)

As convoluted stories go, this one’s a doozy. Formed in Germany in 1971, Neuschwanstein took their name from a Bavarian castle, and their musical lead from the best of British prog - no dour Krautrock excursions for this lot; in fact, when guitarist Roger Weiler joined founders Thomas Neuroth and Klaus Meyer a few years later (they were at a Genesis gig at the time), it was on the strength of hearing Neuschwanstein cover Rick Wakman’s Six Wives of Henry VIII.

In 1976, the band began work on a German language narration of Alice in Wonderland, intoned across a lush and lavish symphonic prog backdrop. Wakeman and Genesis remained obvious touchstones - live, the band was now appearing in full theatrical costume, and audiences began to grow. It would be 1979, however, before the band finally released an album, Battlement; poor Alice, meanwhile, sat on the shelf until 2008 finally saw it appear on CD and begin, at last, Neuschwanstein’s absorption into prog legend.

The idea of rerecording the narration in English followed a little over a decade later, only to be halted when the band discovered that the original master tape was blank. Cue several months spent coaxing technology to advance far enough for them to work with the tapes they did have (the full story is told in the accompanying booklet), and finally here it is.

With the new narration delightfully performed by Curved Air's Sonja Kristina, and seamlessly replacing the original, Alice in Wonderland truly emerges now as one of the great lost classics of seventies prog. Musical tributes to the literature of old, while not overly common, were at least familiar around the mid-1970s, and Neuschwanstein’s effort slips effortlessly into that company.

The liners, meanwhile, compare it to “the best contemporary works of Focus and Camel,” which is a fair enough parallel; you can, however, certainly hear those other, aforementioned, influences at work - guitarist Weiler was even using the same kind of six/twelve string double neck guitar as Steve Hackett regularly employed.

It’s a hybrid that works, though, and — for non-German speaking audiences, at least — an already fabulous album just got even better.

  

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