Reviews: TV Smith, Morning Brake, Fancy, Edgar Broughton Band, Curved Air, Chemistry Set,  Mudhoney, Ska, David Bowie, Hello

Dave Thompson’s Spin Cycle reviews recent releases from TV Smith, Fancy (shown), Edgar Broughton Band, Curved Air, Chemistry Set, Mudhoney and others.
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1

TV Smith

Lockdown Holiday 

Easy Action (CD/LP)

If there’s one good thing to be drawn from the music industry’s pandemic-led collapse, it’s the fact that a lot of artists have spent their enforced vacations making records that neither we nor they expected to hear. The fruits of those labors are now beginning to emerge, but few are so direct, and so utterly enjoyable, as TV Smith’s contribution.

Unequivocally titled, passionately performed and, as always, brilliantly lyric-ed (is that even a word?), Lockdown Holiday is effectively a concept album, tracing the course of both the pandemic and the U.K. authorities’ response to it. It builds, however, not out of simple observation, but also from Smith’s own first-hand encounter with the bug… picked up, ironically, on his way to one of the final shows he was able to play before it became prudent to stop altogether. “One sneeze in a service station, that’s where my calendar ends.”

The overall mood is acoustic, an atmosphere that always brings out the best in Smith — he plays guitar like he sings, his plectrum rushing to keep up with the lyrics that fall as fast from his mouth today as they ever did back in the days of the Adverts. Likewise, the shifts in emphasis which hit you as hard as a crate full of bass drums, as “The Lucky Ones” shifts from an account of his own Covid-fired sufferings to those of others who don’t have the luxury of a comfortable bed and hot running water to see them through their convalescence.

It’s not a feelgood album… some folk might even find it depressing; it’s bad enough that this bloody bug dominates the news and conversation, do we really need to singalong to songs about it? The difference is, Smith’s commentary is worth hearing (and singing along with); and, besides, the lessons that he draws from what we’ve been going through is applicable to a lot more than the pandemic.

Rather, it is the conditions in which the pandemic has flourished, social and cultural, that interest him the most, targets that shift from the government misinformation we’ve all heard about, to the fact that society in general has become so used to technology solving all our problems instantly that we don’t have a clue what to do about something that can’t be fixed with a quick Google search. But it can certainly be unfixed, if you believe most of what you read.

All of which makes things sound a lot more dour than they are — “Lockdown Holiday” itself might not have the most cheerful lyrics, but there are tunes here that will lock themselves into your brain first time, to go with the thoughts that will linger even longer. Spin Cycle has already included this album in its best new releases of 2020 (it was released at the end of November). There’s not much been released so far this year to compete with it.

  

3

Fancy

The Complete Recordings 

Lemon Records (3-CD Set)

Fancy are one of those bands that you either fondly remember — or don’t recall at all. Spin Cycle caught them opening for 10cc in 1975, and was utterly captivated by their performance; other ears might recollect that supremely squelchy cover of “Wild Thing,” with which they scored a surprise U.S. hit in 1974. And others? They’re staring blankly at the picture and thinking… “who?”

The brainchild of producer Mike Hurst, alongside session whizzes Mo Foster, Les Binks and Ray Fenwick, Fancy was originally conceived strictly as a one-off, for the aforementioned squelch song. Recruiting former Penthouse pet Helen Caunt to layer on some suitably sultry vocals, the single came, it saw, it conquered and it demanded an accompanying LP. However, Caunt would not be around for that.

She was replaced by Annie Kavanagh, an Australian born singer whose resume included stints in Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and a spell singing back up for Steely Dan, and the Wild Thing album that followed (included here with three bonus tracks), proved that there was a rare chemistry at work.

While its lyrical content did in many ways play to the peanut gallery, musically it’s a solid piece of mid-'70s rock funk. Plus, aside from the single, it also boasts the follow-up, “Touch Me,” which — like the album — should have done better than it did. Atlantic dropped the band and that was the end of it.

Except Fancy fancied carrying on, and reemerged in 1975 with Something to Remember (Turns You On in the USA), a collection highlighted by a monumental reworking of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Him,” and the opening “She’s Riding the Rock Machine,” a supremely funky slice of Kavanagh autobiography that even succeeded in shrugging off its admittedly awful title (and chorus).

The remainder of the album, while not quite as spellbinding, nevertheless proved a powerful offering, and its reissue here - with five bonus tracks drawn from period singles - suggests it has lost none of its energy.

Neither are memories of the live show distorted by the passage of time. Disc three in the box captures Fancy live at Ronnie Scotts in the aftermath of the 10cc tour, pounding through the very best of the album and again sounding alive with promise.

But it was not to be. That was Fancy’s final show… the record had bombed, the label didn’t care for a follow up, Kavanagh followed her bandmates onto the sessions circuit (she worked with Ray Russell and Neil Innes, among others) and Fancy were forgotten. This package, hopefully, will bring them back into the spotlight.

  

2

Various Artists

“I Go To Sleep”

Morning Brake Records (EP)

Here’s a weirdie. Five interpretations of the Kinks’ “I Go To Sleep”; five reasons to remember it as one of Ray Davies’s loveliest songs, and five bands whose names will already be familiar to regular Spin Cyclists: Schizo Fun Addict, the Lost Stoned Pandas, Sarah Birch, the Blue Giant Zeta Puppies and the Lounge Bar Orchestra.

Produced to mark the publication of Morning Brake label founder Andy Bracken’s latest novel The Cut (itself recommended to anyone who thinks that record collecting means more than simply collecting records), the five are gathered together on both a 10-inch lathe cut EP and CD… and obviously, we all know which one we’d rather have.

All five takes are dramatically different. The Orchestra’s is orchestral, even if it does open with what sounds like a bombastic remake of “Jailhouse Rock.” Sarah Birch offers a duet for haunting vocal and nightclub trimmings, all underpinned by an adorable one finger piano; the Puppies reimagine the ballad as a pounding freakbeat rocker; Schizo as irresistible dream pop; and finally the Pandas take the song clubbing, while imagining what Animal from the Muppets might have done with it.

It’s a terrific single, five fresh additions to any “King Kinks Kovers” collection you’ve ever been planning to made for yourself, and if it makes you want to read the book as well… which it will… do not resist.

  

4

Edgar Broughton Band

Speak Down the Wires - The Recordings 1975-1982 

Esoteric Recordings (4-CD Set)

Think of the Edgar Broughton Band and you immediately remember the hairy freak combo that emerged out of the tail end of psychedelia, to join Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies at the apex of the early 70s festival underground. Five albums cut for Harvest between 1969 (Wasa Wasa) and 1975 (Oora) contain some of the most dramatically out there rock of the age, and some of the most brilliantly conceived, as well - who else would medley the Shadows “Apache” with Captain Beefheart’s “Drop Out Boogie”?

Less feted are the albums that the band produced over the next seven years — three studio sets and a live album to prove that even at the end of the decade, the Broughtons were a concert force to be reckoned with. Those records are the ones you’ll find here… Bandages (1975), Live Hits Harder! (1979), Parlez Vous English? (1979) and Superchip — the Final Silicone Solution (1982). And if you’re not familiar with them, let this be your introduction.

Bandages is the runt of the litter, recorded as the band struggled with both management problems and their new label… which just happened to be owned by their management. It definitely has its moments, but coming after the minor disappointment of Oora, it suggested that the band had reached the end of its tether. And so it had - the following year saw the Broughtons embark on their farewell tour.

A live album was planned, but it was three years before the tapes emerged as Live Hits Harder!, a savagely enjoyable collection even if, for Broughtons aficionados, it was recorded five years too late. Released only in Switzerland, it dribbled into the U.K. on import, and the story was over. Which means, nobody could have predicted what would happen next, as the band reformed at the end of 1978 and set to work on what can only be described as one of their masterpieces.

Parlez Vous English? was everything its most spirited predecessors are, but seen through a sheen that recognized all that had changed since the band was last in the studio, on record and in society. Released under the abbreviated name of the Broughtons, it’s an electrifying album, sharp and witty, demanding and demonstrative. The record did nothing chart wise, but it proved that the Broughtons were back.

And then they were gone again, vanishing for three years before re-emerging with the final album in this box, the conceptual Superchip.

Again the band had been paying attention to what was occurring outside of their studio. Synths burble and bleep all over, with the opening “Metal Storm” alone truly remarking upon the band’s former chaos. But it works. The lyrics are as crafty as ever, and Edgar’s always going to sound like Edgar, no matter what’s going on around him. And those are the elements that drag the electronics out of their then-customary roost in alienation and ice, to give Superchip an energy and an atmosphere that only John Foxx, of the contemporary wave of synth warriors, had even come close to capturing. It remains a joy.

It’s also the only album in the box to include a bonus track, the period b-side “the Virus,” but that’s barely a deficiency. Three of the four albums here demand a place in your collection, regardless of how many Broughton discs you already own; and the fourth (Bandages) will swiftly prove itself to be more than makeweight as well. Indeed, of all the early-mid- '70s proggy favorites who persisted in making albums after punk scorched the ears… and that’s everyone from Caravan to ELP, from Genesis to Yes… the Broughtons truly were one of the precious few that were worth still listening to.

  

6

The Chemistry Set

“Paint Me a Dream” 

Hypnotic Bridge (45)

Call me contrary but it’s the b-side - a cover of Mark Fry’s “The Witch” - which, even this early in the year, is going to rank this among Spin Cycle’s top singles of the year, a folky, spooky, haunted slice of occasionally Floydy psych (it’s that organ) that morphs so gently into a pounding freak out of the kind you wish every record sounded like. The Chemistry Set have always rated high on the Modern Psych-o-meter, but this time, they’ve hit the nail so hard on the head that a time machine could not make you happier.

Flip it over - and oh, what the hell, let’s pretend it’s a double a-side. Because “Paint Me a Dream” effectively picks up where “The Witch” left off, with the Set already sparking alchemical magic, but this time heading towards a shoe-gazey kind of Byrdsy sound, with guitars on stun and a dynamic guitar solo spilling fuzz all over the carpet. Which is exactly what we need right now.

  

5

Curved Air

The Albums 1970-1973 

Esoteric Recordings (4-CD Sets)

Although it is less than three years since Esoteric last visited the Curved Air catalog, with a series of gorgeously packaged and bonus stacked standalone reissues, still this slimmed-down gathering of the first four is a joy.

Comprising the albums Air Conditioning, Second Album, Phantasmagoria and Air Cut, and eschewing all but the most essential (b-side) bonus tracks, it focuses on Curved Air at both their most productive, and their most fluid.

At their peak, and the first three discs certainly represent that, Curved Air’s versatility was such that they could have been three, four different bands, each one as successful, and brilliant, as the other. The fact that the band chose to cram them all together into one unit may not have contributed overly much to the group’s longevity, but while it lasted (again, the first three albums), they were peerless.

Sonja Kristina certainly possessed one of the voices of the age, while bandmates Francis Monkman and Darryl Way were effectively lead instrumentalists in their own right… Monkman also handled the remastering and, if we begin at the beginning, what he describes as “some judicious tweaking” has resulted in “the album I had always hoped [it] would be.”

It certainly sounds good; “It Happens Today” tears itself from the opening grooves, a duet for voice and symphony, and as we plunge deeper into the disc… “Screw,” “Vivaldi” (with and without cannons) “Situations” and the mighty “Propositions”… Curved Air hang suddenly revealed as possibly the most inventive of all the bands that clashed rock with the classics, by virtue of not forcing either into the arms of the other. This was fusion in its purest sense, and across the two albums that followed, the band only improved upon the recipe.

Second Album is, arguably, best remembered for “Back Street Luv.” Yet, despite becoming one of the defining hit records of 1971, at least in the UK and Europe, it was simply one drop in the ocean of brilliance that awaited the long-playing listener.

“Young Mother,” “Everdance,” “Puppets”… though the band never scored another hit single, still Second Album serves as a greatest bits collection, hitting peaks that confirmed the majesty of… again, where do you start? Sonja Kristina’s flawless vocal? Francis Monkman’s inventive guitar? Darryl Way’s freakstorm violin? In instrumental terms, Curved Air arguably blew the socks off any of prog’s better-feted virtuosos; in compositional terms, they out-wrote a lot of rock and pop’s finest tunesmiths.And again, it all peaks here.

And then we reach Phantasmagoria, and it peaks even higher. Opening on the deathless melodic salvo of “Marie Antoinette” and “Melinda More Or Less,” before zooming into the realms of hyper-activity (“Ultra Vivaldi”), warped breakneck pop (the Airplane-y title track), epic bombast (“Over and Above”) and unabashed nut-cookie battiness (“Once A Ghost”), Phantasmagoria hangs so high and heavy over its era that it is probably singlehandedly responsible for every so-called “prog” album of the next twelve months. After listening to this, everyone else had to up their game. Curved Air, on the other, effectively splintered.

Kristina and third album bassist Mike Wedgwood promptly convened a new line-up, and they did it so dramatically that Air Cut was effectively the work of a wholly different band, working to wholly different parameters. Seventeen-year-old Eddie Jobson was a fine sonic substitute for Way, but would never prove his equal in terms of invention, and though Air Cut is a fine album, it was never a fine Curved Air album. Too rock, too straightforward, too much time spent waiting for the shackles to be removed.

Before that, though — if you missed the last round of reissues, you need this box. If you didn’t, then get it to play in another room. You can never have too many copies of Phantasmagoria.

  

7

Mudhoney

Real Low Vibe - The Complete Reprise Recordings, 1992-1998 

Cherry Red (4-CD Set)

As we gear up for the (cover your ears) 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and the attendant grunge gang that found fame in its wake, we can remember, too, the feeding frenzy that sent every major label on earth hotfooting to Seattle to pick up some flannel of their own. This band went to this label, that band went to that label, and Mudhoney - whose claim to be the founding fathers of the entire shebang is probably the most realistic of them all - went to Reprise.

The three studio albums that followed - Piece of Cake, My Brother the Cow and Tomorrow Hit Today - are rarely ranked among the band’s finest, but in truth, a lot of that is snobbery, and affection for their Sub Pop predecessors. That much is apparent from the fourth disc in the set, On Tour Now, a long-in-demand promo recorded in Seattle on the Piece of Cake tour, and seamlessly blending new material with old. The gaps don’t show, and “Suck You Dry” remains a stunning noise.

There again, so do “Generation Spokesmodel,” “Blinding Sun,” “Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew” and “Beneath the Valley of the Underdog”… and a lot more besides.

Generous bonus tracks append each of the albums, with Cow and Tomorrow effectively serving up an entire LP’s worth of extra material… some (in fact, most) of it is great, some is simply nice to have, but there’s a world of b-sides, sampler tracks, odd and ends and out-takes out there, many of which have confounded collectors for years. It’s great to have them all in one place.

   

8

Various Artists

Staring at the Rude Boys - The British Ska Revival 1979-1989 

Pressure Drop (3-CD Set)

Forty years on, it’s funny how history recalls this collection’s subject matter as something of a two year wonder, its lifespan more or less dictated by that of the Specials, and the Two Tone label. When, in reality, it spread far beyond those narrow confines and far beyond that time span, too.

And that is the beauty of this collection, the fact that Two Tone itself barely gets a look in — a cut apiece by the Specials, Selecter and the Bodysnatchers across disc one, a Rico one-off on disc two, and beyond that we’re into the rest of the universe, from the big hitting [English] Beat, Bad Manners and Madness, through the second division Lambrettas, Merton Parkas and Piranhas, and thence into the realms of one-off singles, one shot wonders, glimpses of future glory (Graduate later spawned Tears for Fears, the Walkie Talkies hosted the Mission’s Wayne Hussey, Roland Gift’s Akrylyx) and more.

Seventies hitmaker Judge Dread, who’d been leading his own ska revival since at least 1972, is here; the original music’s own Laurel Aitken and Desmond Dekker join Rico in showing the kids how it’s done. And anyone with half an eye on the scene at the time will probably remember catching the likes of Arthur Kay’s originals, the Reluctant Stereotypes, the Skavengers and the Ska-dows somewhere or other. There’s a fortune in forgotten 45s buried within these grooves, and a mountain of memories, too. With a smartly-presented booklet to jog the memory on the occasions it needs it.

Things do start winding down towards the end… in terms of pure innovation and joy, the movement was on its uppers by late 1981, as new notions arose to occupy the senses, and ska sank back into the underground until its next revival rolled around in the early 1990s. Tracks here from the likes of Skin Deep, Busters All Stars, King Hammond, the Hot Knives, the Loafers and Maroon Town probably have more in common with that movement than they do with the earlier explosion. But it’s good to hear them here anyway.

   

9

David Bowie

Liveandwell.com 

Parlophone (CD)

We can scream till we’re blue in the face about the harrying of the David Bowie archive in the years since his passing; how there’s not an album in his catalog that he doesn’t appear to have told someone to mess up with a new mix; not an out-take considered too ghastly to be allowed out to play; not a live show so poorly recorded that it won’t appear as a limited edition colored vinyl collectible on a Record Store Day near you.

But for long time fans and collectors, these are the golden years because, if you can resist the temptation to just buy everything, you can console yourself instead with the things you need to have. And, so far, the good has readily outweighed the bad (or, at least, pointlessly random).

Do we need to hear Tony Visconti’s 2020 remix of Man Who Sold The Earth? No! And you’ll say that even louder once you have heard it. But should we spend an evening ploughing through the umpteen discs of demos that made up Conversation Piece? Yes! Did we really need the Glastonbury live album and DVD? No. But should we at least cast a curious eye towards Liveandwellcom? Definitely!

It is, to begin with, an at least halfway official album, a concert set that Bowie put together in 1999, only for his label of the time, Virgin, to nix it. Ultimately, sundry fan club releases and b-sides brought it into the public eye, and now it’s back again as the latest (at the time of writing) in the six disc Brilliant Live Adventures collection.

It’s not the whole thing — absent are the four remixes with which Bowie appended the original concept. But the main disc, drawn in the main from shows in New York, Amsterdam, and Rio between June and November 1997, add up to perhaps the most enjoyable Bowie live album we’ve had in years… and that’s without the inclusion of any song that could be considered a “greatest hit.” No “Rebel Rebel,” no “Jean Genie”… the only seventies song in sight is a gloriously reworked “V2 Schneider.” No “Let’s Dance” or “China Girl”… in fact, nothing from the '80s whatsoever, and only one number (“Pallas Athena”) from any album that predated Outside.

So it’s that and the subsequent Earthling that devour the package, and regardless of when you last played either studio album, Liveandwell is a thrill and a half, a best-of-both with Bowie backed by his finest, tightest, band since the Spiders: Reeves Gabrels, Gail Ann Dorsey, Zachary Alford and Mike Garson.

“Hallo Spaceboy” is an obvious highlight, the scything guitars sounding even harsher here than on the studio version, but there’s not a dull moment in sight as “I’m Afraid of Americans,” “Heart’s Filthy Lesson,” “Telling Lies,” “Little Wonder’… they just skate by, reminding you how great the actual show was (if you saw him back then), or moan again the fates that prevented from being there (if you didn’t.).

There’s a full live show from this same set scheduled next in the Live Adventures series, and some folk might think they’ll just wait for that… who needs two live albums from the same tour, anyway? Spin Cycle’s advice is - don’t. This is the project that Bowie wanted, this is the one he chose the tracks for, this is the one he mixed. A concert recording is a concert recording. But this is a proper live album.

  

10

Hello

The Complete Singles Collection 

7Ts (2-CD Set)

For a band that scored just two major hits at the dog end of the glam era; whose best known number was a smash for Ace Frehley (but not for them), and who otherwise are recalled for a modicum of success in Germany, Hello receive a lot of love from collectors.

A lot of very well-deserved love. Of all the bands that glam rammed down our throats in the years after the first wave of pioneers has passed, Hello defied every stereotype that you could throw at them simply by being a great rock band.

Yes, they were young. Yes, their singer was pretty. Yes, they dressed in silver, signed to Bell, supported Gary Glitter and covered his Glitter Band. But their own hands wrote some of the most convincing rock’n’roll of the age: “Another School Day,” “Keep Us Off The Streets,” “We Gotta Go” and, best of all, “Lightning.”

They redefined the Exciters’ “Tell Him”; they produced the definitive version of “New York Groove”; and, if you really want to know how confident they were, when Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman wrote a song for them, “Dyna-Mite,” they turned it down. Mud went on to have the hit, Hello bided their time.

Disc one follows the band from their debut in 1972 to early 1976, and is probably the one you’ll play the most; disc two, kicking off at the end of that year, sees Hello switch their attentions to the continent and Japan, and they do lose their way to some extent.

Many of the singles here didn’t even see a U.K. release; a couple were released in Japan alone, and the disc wraps up with the band now crumbling, and a couple of solo cuts by drummer Jeff Allen. It’s all good fun, but Hello were worth so much more than that - and thankfully, the first half of this collection lays out why.

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