(Vocalion - SACD)
Quadraphonic sound.If you want to get a laugh from the hip cognoscenti of a certain vintage, quad’s up there with Betamax and 8-Tracks among the dinosaurs that should never have walked in the first place.It’s only in recent years, with the slow-but-steady drip-feed of those long forgotten quad mixes into digital, that ears are beginning to wake up to how glorious it was.
It’s a piecemeal process, a Black Sabbath mix here, a Deep Purple one there.But the quad mix of John Lennon’s Imagine that helped fill the multi-disc box set last year certainly deserved the plaudits it received, and a recent Eric Clapton box unearthed two with surprisingly grand results.
As for the rest, it’s a gap that Vocalion have been quietly filling for the last three or so years - Tower of Power, the Main Ingredient, Deodato, the Guess Who, the Hues Corporation and more have all been restored to four channel fidelity.But it is with Breakaway that the majesty of quad truly leaps out at you.
Released in 1975, Breakaway was only Garfunkel’s second solo album since the demise of his partnership with Paul Simon… Angel Clare, his debut, has also received the SACD treatment, and it was a lovely record.Breakaway, however, is breathtaking, a Richard Perry production that didn’t simply throw the kitchen sink into the mix, the entire kitchen followed.The strings, the harmonies, every arrangement is as perfect as Garfunkel’s voice is note-perfect, and of course the choice of songs is peerless.
Gallagher and Lyle’s title track, Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe,” Stephen Bishop’s “Looking for the Right One,” Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls”… the headlines may have focussed on Garfunkel’s reunion with Paul Simon for “My Little Town,” but in many ways, that was the filler track.It’s the rest of the album that you need to hear, and those moments when Garfunkel doesn’t even seem to be singing for his audience any longer.He’s singing for himself, and it wouldn’t matter if he was in his car, in the shower, or what.That moment in “Disney Girls” where he wakes up the house transcends language.
And so to the quad mix.Now, we have to remember that, for all its sonic advantages, quad was also seen as a bit of a novelty.Alice’s Billion Dollar Babies, Mott’s The Hoople, David Essex’s Rock On… a lot of quad releases felt as though they were designed to show off the format’s capabilities, far more than to showcase the music.You can do a lot with sound effects, after all.
No such reservations with Breakaway.Nothing intrudes into the soundstage, nothing skulks in one speaker waiting for the moment it can go “boo.”But the sound is bigger, broader, literally cocooning the listener within everything the stereo mix had to offer, but more, more, more.It’s what quad - and, more recently, surround sound - is meant to feel like (but so rarely does).Total immersion and absolute perfection.
As business plans go, reissuing 70s quad on SACD has to be one of the most bizarre in recent music industry history.But you know what?It might well be the smartest thing anyone’s done in years.
Girl in a Million - The Complete Recordings
(RPM - 2CDs)
Ah, Twinkle.She could have been, should have been, and - in more alternate realities than you are maybe aware of - was the greatest female performer of the British mid-sixties.
As both songwriter and a singer, she may best be remembered for “Terry,” the post-“Leader of the Pack” bike smash that became her biggest hit.Or, perhaps, for “Golden Lights,” which Morrissey subsequently brought back to life.
But the sheer strength and beauty of her entire recorded output has never been doubted by those who’ve tapped into the secret world of Twinkle Worship, and the fact that new, unheard material is still being uncovered, four years after her death in May 2015, is an indication of just beloved she remains.
Girl in a Million collects together everything that has come to light so far.Disc one is itself effectively a revised edition of 1993’s Golden Lights collection, with five extra tracks - achunky live recording of “Sha-La-La-La-Lee” (yes, that one); a German language take on the flop “Tommy” single; a minute-longer version of 1969’s “Mickey” single; and a couple of remixes that made it out as a single in 1976… a gloriously echo-fied “Terry” among them.
Disc two picks up with a pair of unreleased recordings from 1971, before rounding up the full Lost Years seventies collection that was released in 2003.A 1982 single (“I’m a Believer”) and a clutch of undated demos complete the package and - unusually for such a “warts and all” approach to completeness, there’s not a wart in sight.
From beginning to end, Girl in a Million is unmitigated joy and one cannot help thinking, if things had only worked out a little differently, Twinkle would today be spoken of with the same kind of (much-merited) awe as Kirsty MacColl is now regarded.A similar grasp of pop at its purest, shot through with an eye for dark and deeper topics too, and a voice that was made for singing along with.In fact, that’s one of those aforementioned alternate realities.But there’s another in which she rules the world.Move over Beatles, here’s the real sound of the sixties.
(Ditton Pye - 1 CD)
Goodness, has it really been twenty years?
Twenty years since English singer-songwriter Philip Jeays’ debut album, October, burst onto the pre-millennium, post-Britpop, pre-Napster, post-whatever scene (how excited we all were to party in 1999), alerting anyone who would listen to a performer who could have flourished in any musical era he chose.And how fortunate we are that he selected ours.
Eight albums later, and four years after his last (The Wildest Walk), Jeays at least glances back at the anniversary with two songs, “November” and “December,” that he admits “carry on the same story from ‘October’.”But he then counters the continuity with “Already April,” which has nothing to do with any of them.
It’s a typically wry Jeays gesture; as wry (although this was certainly not planned) as the fact that Angelina was released just three days on from the death of Scott Walker - perhaps the only Anglo-American songwriter with whom Jeays’ vision could be said to share its living space.(At least across Walker’s first four albums.)
There’s that same sense of high drama, eternal emotion and romance poised on a tightrope of despair, and the same barely-disguised love of Jacques Brel.Those same glances into everyday mundanity, too - the tin of peaches in “December,” the girl who swears in Dutch… “Maartje Says Nothing,” Jeays confesses, is the girl who “introduced me to Deep Purple and Alice Cooper,” and you might not be expecting it but, with a rock band suddenly blasting behind him, you know her influence lingered.
Such moments of mayhem, of course, are rare.Even with band, orchestra, horns and more to back him through the album, Jeays sounds and feels like a lone troubadour, naked bar the scantest of accompaniment - a testament to both the conviction of his vocals, the strength of his lyrics, and the sheer ferocity of his observations.(That said, the cataclysm unfolding around the epic title track runs the Jeays tonsils very close indeed.)
Lines leap out like saber toothed tigers.“What Did You Do In The War?” is already sardonically flavored by the current state of British politics and culture, a lacerating dismissal of all the nonsense that now seems “normal.”Yet still there’s one phrase that hits like a ton of well-aimed bricks:“Johnny hurt his arm.Shall we have a five minute silence?”
It’s a subjective question to say the least - who are the finest songwriters of the century-so-far?It’s one that is further skewed by the continuing relevance of so many survivors from the decades before that; and further still by the fact that many of the likeliest candidates are scarcely household names.
The thing is, that latter really doesn’t matter.Across twenty years and nine albums, Philip Jeays has consistently, and unerringly, delivered, to the point where it’d be disingenuous to even try and proclaim Angelina Supercop his finest album yet.They all are.Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next one.
All Things Are Quite Silent - Complete Recordings 1970-71
(Cherry Tree/Cherry Red - 3CDs)
This is scarcely the first time around for Steeleye Span’s maiden triptych; between a lorry load of vinyl reissues, and CD packages from Shanachie and Castle, it would be a peculiar Span-fan indeed who did not own these in at least one or two permutations, and possibly more.
Nevertheless, this is the package to own.No remastering appears to have been done, but the sound seems warmer (and less, in places, piercing) than past digital doings, while a 32-page booklet and the now-traditional sleeves-in-clamshell packaging just look a lot better than those clunky old jewel cases.So, full marks for presentation (and for reproducing the booklet from Ten Man Mop), and onto the music.
Well, it’s Steeleye, of course, and such familiar Steeleye that even the bonus tracks seem like old friends - the out-take “General Taylor,” which first appeared on a label sampler back in the early 70s, and three different versions of the “Rave On” single. A cappella Buddy Holly.Perfect.
As for the albums themselves, the liners are perhaps presumptuous when they insist “its generally acknowledged by critics and fans alike that…” these are Steeleye’s best.Hmmm.Better than the peerless run that reached from Below The Salt to Commoners Crown?Better than All Around My Hat and Rocket Cottage?Actually, yes.But there are probably folk out there who will clutch their copy of Sails of Silver to their breast, and challenge writer David Wells to a duel.
He’s not strictly wrong, though.As cohesive pieces, these three are Steeleye at a rare altitude.Later albums had better highlights - nothing here matches the eerie scratchings of “King Henry,” the frantic riffola of “Alison Gross,” the sinister joy of “Long Lankin,” the wheezing frailty of “To Know Him Is To Love Him,” the dilly dally daftness of “New York Girls.”And then there’s the almighty “Drink Down the Moon.”
But each of the “classic” albums also boasts the odd song or two that you maybe wish had been left behind. (“Dogs and Ferrets” comes to mind.)Within this selection, the blend of Trad Arr. and band compositions is utterly seamless; as seamless, in fact, as the albums themselves.Without a second thought, the three play through as though they were one, and besides, there are moments here, too, that rank alongside the giants of latter renown… “Boys of Bedlam,” “Dark Eyed Sailor,” “Captain Coulston.”
So don’t yawn and say you already have these, or wonder who else might need them.Steeleye’s catalog desperately requires a full scale upgrade (can you even imagine how spectacular Now We Are Six would sound in 5.1?) and any move in that direction is welcome.And if you don’t agree, then hey nonny no to you.
Soul Jazz Records Presents Fashion Records - Style & Fashion
(Soul Jazz - 2CDs)
It all feels so long ago but, for a couple of decades at the end of the last century, Fashion Records was probably the UK’s most enterprising indie label.Not in the same way as the traditional giants of the field (Mute, Cherry Red, Factory etc), and scarcely in the same musical bag either.
But in terms of both the dancefloor where you danced, and the Dancefloor that was reggae’s latest permutation, Fashion both matched and occasionally improved upon anything that the music’s spiritual homeland could muster, and the biggest drawback with this collection is, it’s only two CDs.In a perfect world, the Fashion catalog en masse would be boxed up for your pleasure, and you’d reach the end of, say, disc twenty, still demanding more.
Not that Style and Fashion doesn’t do its job.Nineteen Fashion classics are remastered across the two discs, with Keith Douglas, Papa Face, General Levy, Laurel & Hardy, Poison Top Cat, Janice Walker and Asher Senator (among others) all presenting the face of UK reggae to the world - and what a face it was.
From an historical perspective, it’s a shame there was no room here for Smiley Culture, Fashion’s first break-out success story.But the era that falls under the spotlight here, and is so skillfully detailed in the accompanying booklet, nevertheless spotlights some remarkable records: Papa Face and Keith Douglas’s “DJ Jamboree,” which hit the 1981 club scene like the most virulent rash; Laurel & Hardy’s “You’re Nicked,” which was even more contagious than that; Janice Walker’s “You’ll Never Need Somebody,” still one of the most captivating Lovers Rock 45s of the age.
And so on, through a collection that lines up perfectly alongside those other crucial documents of the 70s-80s UK reggae scene… Honest Jon’s Watch How the People Dancing and Pressure Sounds’ Don’t Call Us Immigrants… and, in so doing, makes you wish there were many, many more of the same.Again, the Fashion catalog cries out for even deeper exploration.Let this be the start of something amazing.Something else amazing.
Spear of Destiny
The Albums 1983-85
(Cherry Red - 3CDs)
Was it really twelve years ago that Cherry Red last reissued the first three Spear of Destiny albums?In glorious bonus stacked style, to effectively deliver the Last Word on the band’s most pomp’n’powerful period?
Yes it was, and here they are again, this time squeezed into a triple disc clamshell that you initially glance at and say - ho hum.But, like the Steeleye Spans above, don’t rush to judgement so fast.Fresh mastering has brought fresh dimensions to what was already a tumultuous sound, and while the trainspotters among us will notice that not everything from the last reissues makes it on board here, it’s close enough to not worry too much.
Yes, the debut Grapes of Wrath loses “Africa” but it gains the unique cassette versions of “The Preacher” and “Omen of the Times.” One Eyed Jacks replaces the 12-inch mix of “Forbidden Planet” with the “single version” (which turns out to be the same thing), then throws on some additional live recordings (and, in case you’re not aware, Spear were one of the live experiences of the early eighties); and while World Service loses the remix of “Mickey,” that’s not much of a loss to begin with.(Bonus live tracks hitherto contained on the latter, by the way, have been transplanted to One Eyed Jacks).
And, in some ways, it’s the bonus material that you want. The albums themselves are spectacular - Kirk Brandon is rarely mentioned as often as he ought to be in any poll of the era’s greatest songsmiths, but things like “Flying Scotsman,” “Liberator,” “Rainmaker,” “Young Men,” “All My Love” and, best of all, “Come Back” utterly epitomize the first half of the eighties in ways that better-feted hits-of-the-day simply cannot match.Now translate each of those into 12-inch mix speak, and an entire night out circa 1984 will play out around your head.It’s intoxicating.
Dig deeper, however, and … maybe Grapes of Wrath is more tentative than it ought to be, never really recovering from the one-two punch of the opening “The Wheel”/“Flying Scotsman”/“Roof of the World.”But the two albums that follow are simply breathless brilliance, and the Brandon interview that fills the booklet shines at least a little light on why that should be.
360 Degrees of Billy Paul/War of the Gods
(Vocalion - 2 SACD)
Two more vintage seventies quad LPs restored for the digital age; two more records that don’t simply demand a fresh hearing today, they deserve it, as well.
And who can be surprised at that?Everything that Holland Dozier Holland were to the sixties (just try and imagine the decade without them), so Gamble and Huff were to the seventies.The O’Jays, the Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the sound of soul throughout the first half of the decade was theirs’, not simply by the sheer weight of records they oversaw, but also the fact that they’re still in constant radio rotation today.
Of all Gamble and Huff’s major acts, Billy Paul was perhaps the most unlikely.His roots lay in soft jazz and, had the stars only been inclined slightly differently, he might have out-Bensoned George Benson.But then “Me and Mrs Jones” came along to become one of the hottest hits of 1972, and with the cast-iron inevitability of a fat cat walking across the keyboard while you type, his career careened off in a whole new direction.
Although not always the direction that most people expected.
360 Degrees was his fourth album and, in terms of Gamble and Huff’s output, it is very much an archetype, the duo’s own compositions mixed with a clutch of well-chosen covers - “Let’s Stay Together” and Elton John’s “Your Song” both receive the full Philadelphia International treatment, and come out smiling as a consequence.The album’s appearance as a quadraphonic remix, however, does not necessarily scream out for attention - it sounds great, but this is one of those occasions when two ears are just as good as four.
Ah, but then you turn to Paul’s follow-up, 1973’s War of the Gods, and this is what quad was made for.The album itself is epic no matter what format you play it on - Spin Cycle used to own it on 8-Track, and loved that as much as the vinyl.Take it into the quad realm, however, and it’s a whole new experience.
The album itself is like nothing else in either Paul’s canon or Gamble & Huff’s empire.Take the threads that the Temptations were picking at across their last albums of the sixties, feed them through a battery of synthesizers and electronica, then mash psych, funk, jazz piano and the incredible Paul voice into the ensuing brew, and the end of the world has never, ever, sounded so alluring.
Now mix it for quad and there’s no holds barred.
“War of the Gods” itself devours ten minutes of the album; three other tracks hang between six and seven; only the hit “Thanks for Saving My Life” clocks in at under four.And while Paul was no stranger to long songs - four of 360’s eight tracks were over five minutes each - still this is a marathon, from the opening “I See the Light,” with its echoed layers and dense wash of sound, through the “Mrs Jones”-alike “I Was Married,” and onto “Peace Holy Peace,” which adds choir to the proceedings and closes the album with a passion that is palpable.And then there’s the title track, which will blow your ears out.All four of them.
Everything about the quad mix stands out, and SACD is the ideal vehicle for it.Certainly, alongside the Art Garfunkel album above, if anyone out there is considering ditching modern surround sound remixes (so many of which are scarcely worth your while, anyway), without abandoning the surround experience, you need to investigate the Vocalion catalog.On the other hand, if you’re just sick of waiting for whoever the latest Magic Hand Mixer Du Jour may be to get around to something different… come listen to what was being done forty years ago.You’ll be astonished.
Losing Touch With My Mind - Psychedelia in Britain 1986-1990
(Cherry Red - 3CDs)
Maybe it was an odd time to be messing with such shenanigans, but psychedelic revivals were threatening the British mainstream throughout much of the eighties, and the late seventies too - early releases by Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, Paul Roland; eyes cast thataway by XTC, the Banshees and the Cure, and the latter pair’s psilocybic spin off as the Glove.We’d barely escaped punk rock and the Damned were dressing up as Naz Nomad and the Nightmares.Nights out at Alice in Wonderland, days in reading interviews with Doctor & the Medics.
We’ve been down that road already, of course, with 2016’s three CD Another Splash of Colour, delving into the multifarious winding pathways that were UK psych through the first half of the 1980s.Now the story continues, but this time there’s an end result in sight - one that the presence of the Stone Roses, Primal Scream, the Charlatans, Inspiral Carpets and the Shamen loudly hints at, even if they shouldn’t take all the credit for what happened next.
Rather, the heroes of this sixty strong package are, again, the so-called lesser lights - the Cleaners from Venus, who would achieve a smattering of posthumous fame when Martyn Newell emerged as a solo artist in the mid-1990s; Biff Bang Pow!, whose memory is invoked every time you think about the Creation; and the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughters (ditto the Incredible String Band); the Legendary Pink Dots, Gaye Bykers on Acid - with a name like that, how could they not be here?
The Thanes, the Prisoners, Jeremy Gluck, names that occasionally overflow from the garage scene that was developing alongside psych in the eighties, and didn’t really allow room to differentiate between them; and aaah, the mighty Magic Mushroom Band, whose very essence conjures images of a muddy field in the middle of somewhere, and a sound system that doubles as an ancient stone circle, while we all await the coming of Ozric Tentacles.
The Ozrics, perhaps, are the biggest omission from this set… it’s a toss-up between them and Bevis Frond.But it doesn’t really matter.If you know they’re missing, then you know what they sound like, and probably own all the records anyway.This box, for the most part, celebrates the ones who are just names in an old heap of gig guides, and the remarkable achievements that so many racked up.
You don’t even want to play favorites… Rosemary’s Children, perhaps?Or Jane from Occupied Europe?Yes, we could probably have lived without Captain Sensible’s inclusion, but One Thousand Violins are here, and there’s other names that, possibly, nobody recalls.Not even the band members.
There’s a handful of unreleased tracks, including a great live Sneetches and a stirring Times remix, and if you’re looking for a mood to encapsulate the entire experience, you could do worse than turn to the Wolfhounds’ so deliciously Cure-like contribution. “Another Hazy Day on the Lazy ‘A’.”Well, it’s either that, or Revolving Paint Dream’s “The Dune Buggy Attack Battalion,” which feels like the stick groove at the end of Metal Machine Music, filtered through a box of startled insects.It’s that good.