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Music Reviews: Linda Thompson, Rowan: Morrison, Curved Air, Helium, Felt, Hawkwind, David Bowie, Sleepyard, Peter Holsapple, Alex Chilton, The Action, Power Pop, Tangerine Dream

Spin Cycle reviews new music releases from Linda Thompson, Curved Air, Hawkwind, David Bowie, Peter Holsapple, Alex Chilton, The Action, Power Pop, Tangerine Dream and more!


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Linda Thompson Presents My Mother Doesn’t Know I’m On The Stage


What a wonderful album this is.What a joy, what a laugh, what a barrel of fun.And what a long time we had to wait for it, thirteen years since Linda and friends staged a night of old English music hall at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.

No folk, no Richard, no “Great Valerio” or “Take Me On The Subway.”This is Thompson going back to roots she cherished long before she started singing for herself, as she has already explained.

“Music hall and variety (vaudeville, for my American friends), was always a big part of my life. I’m only a hop skip and a jump removed from it. My grandparents were born in the late 1800s. My parents were born near the beginning of the 20th Century. My paternal grandmother had seen Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley, and the like. My dad grew up on Max Miller, and The Crazy Gang. He took me to theatres, both in London and Glasgow, to see shows. I missed Max Miller, but I knew every word of his act, and all of the songs. I did see The Crazy Gang, who were sensational. I actually worked with one of them in 1967. Monsewer Eddie Grey. Lovely guy.”

There’s a box set of the original stuff if you want to dig deeper, Bear Family’s four CD Round the Town, and it’s a pleasure despite all the hiss and crackle - no amount of digital remastering can truly clean up old cylinders and pre-Great War 78s.So Linda and co are merely scratching the surface here, fourteen songs that range from Harry Lauder’s “I Wish You Were Here Again” to the showstopping “Show Me The Way To Go Home,” from “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” to “If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses In Between,” originally performed by Cockney Gus Ellen in the 1890s… ooh, and don’t miss “"Wotcher! (Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road),”a song that Fozzie Bear once performed for the Muppets, but which is decidedly older than that… it was written in 1891, and there’s a wonderful 1910 version by Charles Penrose knocking around as well.

Here it’s performed by actor Roy Hudd, himself a link-of-sorts to music hall days, but he’s just one of the merry crew on board.Linda herself sings lead on just two songs, a gorgeous “Goodbye Dolly Gray” among them; elsewhere, Martha Wainwright, Colin Firth (yes, that Colin Firth), Bob Davenport and Teddy Thompson are among those who take the lead, in performances recorded both on the night and later, in sessions convened specifically for this project.And the end result, sticking true to both the musical and lyrical purpose of the songs, emerges among the most unexpectedly entrancing new albums of the year.

Rowan: Morrison

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Bury the Forests


Ahead of the forthcoming album In the Sunshine We Rode the Horses, Rowan Amber Mill and Angeline Morrison join forces for a lushly atmospheric seven song EP - five from the album, two exclusive to this release.

In the duo’s own words, the project “explores themes of our beautiful natural surroundings, and how the pursuit of profit guides us to learn 'the cost of everything and the value of nothing', paving the way for the scarring of the landscape with fracking, HS2, retail parks, and so on….”

It focuses, however, on one single piece of land - the Ridgeway is regarded as Britain’s oldest road, a track that winds from Wiltshire to the River Thames, and sweeps up en route some of southern England’s most resonant archaeological remains.So far, the Ridgeway has escaped the kind of modern attentions that have torn up the rest of the country, and long may it continue to do so.But people said that about Stonehenge, as well.

In keeping with its inspiration, the music here is pastoral, mysterious, eerie - Morrison’s voice, and her multi-layered harmonies, weave an almost sacred, spectral air over the instrumentation, which itself conjures a tightly woven web of mist shrouded shapes and softly-shifting figures, gliding across the soundscape like time honored ghosts.It’s an album for listening to while you’re waiting for sleep, when darkness brings out even broader impressions, and hallucinations too.The largely spoken word “At the Circles End,” which closes the disc, makes sure of that.

As always with Rowan Amber Mill, the packaging is fabulous, a metal tin that adds four prints, three buttons and a sticker (the white horse) to the CD, and you have the choice between monochrome and color editions.There’s also a download at the duo’s Bandcamp site.

Curved Air

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Second Album

(Esoteric/Cherry Red - CD/DVD)

Where does one even start with this?With an album that still gets better every time you hear it, despite the fact it’s pushing fifty years of age?With the bonus tracks that capture Curved Air at their live peak, for a BBC concert in 1971?Or with a thirteen track DVD that rounds up three European TV performances and a three song promo film?

It’s hard to say but, wherever the laser drops first, Esoteric’s on-going Curved Air reissue program peaks here.

Second Album was, of course, the follow-up to Curved Air’s picture disced debut, but if that album relied on the gimmickry of its packaging to catch the casual browser’s attention, this one had something far meatier to boast.“Back Street Luv” was one of the defining hit records of 1971, at least in the UK and Europe, but 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… maybe not as overall strong as the later Phantasmagoria, but 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.

The CD is magnificent, the DVD is flawless.No matter that swathes of its contents have been floating around Youtube for years.Footage from the French Pop Deux and the German Beat Club round up material from both the band’s albums to date, and though the twelve performances amount to no more than seven different songs, three very different versions of “Vivaldi” and “Back Street Luv,” and two apiece of “It Happened Today” and “Propositions” are no hardship whatsoever.


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Custard Flux


Helium is Gregory Curvey, mastermind behind long-time Spin Cycle faves Luck of Eden Hall, but stepping out here with what is less a solo album, and more a whole new notion - prog rock unplugged.Or, as Curvey prefers to put it, “electricity free.”

It’s a wry notion, especially if one recalls British DJ John Peel’s early condemnation of ELP as “a waste of electricity.”But there is no monster moog inflected classical navel-gazing going on here; if anything, Custard Flux feels more like something XTC might have hatched, had they only had other plans for Nigel.

The opening “Hit Parade” is certainly a pumping piece of pop, and while the rest of the album is certainly a lot less over-excited (well, mostly), that impression does not stray far.From the folk-in-space “La Mort” and the Beatles-y “Out of Phase,” to the delectably convoluted “Shire of Gingham” (Ozric Tentacles meet Blackmore’s Night), it’s an album that wanders across a multitude of emotions, and the fact that each one feels like a fresh peak is further evidence of its overall eccentricity.

The nature of the instrumentation, to be truthful, does not impact too heavily on what follows; Custard Flux is no less lush for the absence of electrics - to the point where, on those occasions that Curvey does reach out for his trusty Flying V (the solo that winds up “Forevermore,” for example), the nature of the rest comes home with even brighter clarity.

The star of the show, after all, is the century old harmonium that Curvey, uses sparingly, but very effectively - it was the discovery of this instrument that ignited this project in the first place, and also inspired its working title of Harmonium Chrysanthemum, and it’s perhaps odd that it receives its most thorough work-out on a song that has been hidden away on the bonus EP, “Innermission.”Odd, but not unforgivable.What could have been shifted from the main disc to make way for it?

And finally - here’s another release with fantastic packaging, as a limited (100 copies) edition arrives in a genuine wooden box, laser-etched and autographed, and packed with both the regular CD and a five track bonus EP.A regular CD is also available, and of course, a download as well.


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A Decade In Music

(Cherry Red - 5 deluxe edition box sets)

That’s right. Five deluxe boxes and that’s only half of the story (so far. The rest is on its way).And while A Decade In Music may not be the most thorough investigation of a band’s back catalog ever conceived (no bonus tracks, no unreleased goodies, no demos from the depths of Lawrence’s wardrobe), it’s certainly one of the most attractive and intriguing.

Each of the boxes contains… deep breath… a remastered copy of a single Felt album in a new gatefold sleeve, a vinyl 7-inch featuring a period 45, an autographed sticker on the shrinkwrap (so open carefully!) and then a wealth of associated ephemera.

Forever Breathe the Lonely Word, Felt’s sixth album (and some say first true “masterpiece”), for example, delivers four button badges, a double sided poster, a pair of gig flyers and a copy of “Primitive Painters,” tightly housed in a 7-inch box, and the others are just as generous. Basically, every time you open one up, it’s like Christmas all over again.And that’s no more than Felt deserve.

The overall catalog can be patchy, it is true.But it nevertheless rates among the precious few that spanned the eighties with anything less than utmost grace and singleminded clarity.

The early albums… those that aren’t included in this initial batch of boxes… tend to be those that the faithful best remember, simply because they allowed fans to grow up alongside the band.Remember, if you were sixteen when Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty emerged, you’d be twenty by the time they got round to Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death (best album title of the decade!!!!!) and you’ll have done an awful lot of growing inbetween times.As had Felt.

But the albums that followed, of which Beauty was the first, were no less adventurous, no less glorious, and the remastering here really does bring out whole new atmospheres and aspects, without ever losing its grip on what Felt made you feel.That alone makes these reissues essential… the ephemera just adds to the fun.Because that’s the other thing to recall about Felt.No matter what mood their music was in, they always ensured you enjoyed the experience.


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Road to Utopia

(Cherry Red)

Hawkwind have always divided opinions. Either you love them, in which case their thirty studio albums to date are ranked among your Best Friends Forever; or you don’t care, in which case you can hum “Silver Machine,” and that’s quite enough.

So maybe it’s time to mix things up a little, with an album that’s going to divide the lovers as well.Hawkwind have never been strangers to revisiting their catalog, digging out favorite oldies and giving them a fresh coat of paint, and on the face of it, Road to Utopia is another in that tradition.

Early word, however, that it was initially intended to be all-acoustic… followed by the decision to add orchestration to the brew (a string quintet, a sax quintet and a brass section)… followed by the arrival of Eric Clapton on guest guitar, and Mike Batt to oversee the fancy frills. Ummm…. well, make up your own minds.But ,if you’ve ever wanted to hear “Quark, Strangeness and Charm” performed as though a seaside holiday camp band has somehow been loosed on your favorite album… actually, let’s not start there.It’s misleading, to say the least, because once you’re past such a grim beginning, it’s actually a really fun album.

Fresh and often fascinating dimensions are added to its victims, be it the Claptonian guitar solo that pursues “The Watcher” to its end, or the almost “Set the Controls”-y vibe that haunts “Hymn to the Sun.”There are surprisingly fervent revisions of “Psi Power” and “Flying Doctor”; and an absolute lack of wrong steps taken by “We Took The Wrong Step Years Ago.”

True, it’s unlikely that the faithful are going to prefer these retakes to either the original versions, or any others that have been delivered, live or in the studio, by the band across the years.But maybe a project like this wasn’t made for the faithful alone.Thirty-one new albums along from the start, maybe it’s time the band expanded the fan base, and and maybe this is the kind of album that will do it.

David Bowie

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Loving the Alien (1983-1988)

Parlophone (8CD box)

The compilers of this box, the fourth in Parlophone’s ongoing anthology of David Bowie’s career, were always born to lose.

Why?Because Bowie’s 1980s were wretched.

They began well, but the good stuff was corralled onto the last box in the series.

They ended well, too.Tin Machine brought Bowie’s most basic rocking instincts back into view for the first time since “Rebel Rebel,” and that should be the cue for box five.And in the middle, there was “Absolute Beginners,” another movie theme and truly the missing link between “Drive In Saturday” and “Everyone Says Hi.”And that is here.

But oh, the bits in between.The box is titled Loving the Alien, but really, the only alien in a roomful of Bowie fans was Bowie himself. These albums were not the work of the man who made - well, name your sixties or seventies poison.They were the work of someone who bored to tears with his job, but couldn’t think what else to do.Cruel critics called Tin Machine Bowie’s mid-life crisis, but they were wrong.Tin Machine was the cure.

From the slick, sleek and utterly one-dimensional pastures of Let’s Dance, we travel on through the absolute nadir of the covers-heavy Tonight, and then back up the hill just a little to Never Let Me Down - the first album of the decade that actually sounded like he was having fun while he made it.Even if he would go on to deny that.

Please don’t misunderstand.Some of the eighties hits were memorable.“Let’s Dance” itself was compulsive, “Blue Jean” and “Loving the Alien” were catchy, “Time Will Crawl” was another of his decade’s highest highs.“Absolute Beginners” was utterly stellar.Some people even like “China Girl,” and “Modern Love” sounded sensational pounding out of a jukebox.

Plus, this was Bowie’s most commercially successful period, so clearly people who claim not to like it are simply being contrary elitists. No, the eighties Bowie could not have written “Moonage Daydream” or “Speed of Life.”But the seventies Bowie could not have come up with “Shake It” and “Shining Star,” sonow we’re even.

The box itself is terrific.The expected high production values, the traditional well-conceived hardback book.And a pair of live albums, from 1983 and 1987, that are as electrifying as you would hope, well-balanced sets, some oldie surprises, and generally (or at least comparatively) spectacular sound quality.Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider are genuine treasures. Unless, of course, you don't like them.

But oh, the lows.Oh, a near-album’s worth of dodgy Iggy Pop covers.Oh, a disc of eighties remixes, for songs that should never have been recorded in the first place.And oh, side two of Never Let Me Down, which included one song (“Too Dizzy”) that Bowie hated so much that he dropped it from the CD and it doesn’t appear in the box at all.

No, not even in the Recall 4 round-up of period odds and ends, where the true depths of the decade are most garishly displayed in the shape of… “Dancing in the Street.”“That’s Motivation.”“Within You.”Gnaaarrrgggh.Neither is it present on Never Let Me Down 2018, a complete revision of the man’s seventeenth studio album which, for many listeners, that’s the real meat here.The question is, is it prime rib?Or week-old roadkill?

Mastermind Mario McNulty is interviewed in the next issue of Goldmine, so you can read his side of the story there.Suffice to say, the end result is a bit of a curate’s egg, in that (say it softly) the music and its production weren’t the album’s only problems, and “Too Dizzy” wasn’t its only turkey.Bowie’s voice was as gruesomely overblown as any of the arrangements, and there are some songs so grisly that no amount of revisionism will ever improve them.

So, the box is the box, its contents are its contents, and it was inevitable that if this series was going to continue after the Berlin years, we’d have to contend with these clinkers sometime.Now they’re out and we can all move on… and yes, it should be time for Tin Machine.Now that one’s going to be fabulous.


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Winter Crickets

( /album/winter-crickets)

Fifth album time for Norway’s Sleepyard, and once again, the duo of Oliver and Svein Kersbergen (plus a clutch of special guests) have fashioned a beautifully mellow, but never less than thrilling series of soundscapes.

Hauntingly poised somewhere between an early Eno ambient album (“Big Picture”) and the first This Mortal Coil LP, but venturing further afield when the mood is right, Winter Crickets is effectively instrumental even when vocals do stray into earshot, and essentially wordless even when lyrics are deployed.

Such is the momentum built up around the instrumentation, even when things lurch into the deliberately cheesy keys and tempos of“(Always) In the Back of my Mind,” a sixties sunshine pop classic masquerading as a fifties movie house intermission theme.Or the discordant radio dialing that leads into the ultra-bounce “Angels Make Perfect” - teen dream psychedelia that even Bacharach would bat his eyelashes to.

Or the brief and almost-clattering “Silent Running,” a perky prelude to what is both the most atypical track here, and one of the undisputed highlights, “Blue Barracuda.”Here lyrics and voice are equally unmistakable, as Judy Dyble returns from Sleepyard’s past to add siren singing to a piece that feels as though it were recorded underwater, and now you’re hearing it from the same vantage point.

So many moods, so many feelings, but each one is so tightly woven together that the fourteen tracks blend into one single experience, across an album that feels a lot shorter than it actually is, but which ought to be a lot longer, too.

Peter Holsapple vs Alex Chilton

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The Death of Rock


The sessions themselves were legendary - Peter Holsapple mining the spirit of Big Star, while Alex Chilton looks on and gently seethes. The liners tell the story, not only of the meeting, but also of the two men’s subsequent relationship, and it’s a rollicking tale.To accompany some rollicking music, beginning with a “Bad Reputation” that touches “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” flavored melodies, and then crash and crunches on from there.

It’s a generous offering - half a dozen Holsapple numbers and five Chilton counterpunches, followed by a barrel-load of out-takes and rehearsals, although in many ways, that sums up the first bunch of tracks, as well.Holsapple, after all, was an unknown at the time, while Chilton wished he was, battling to shake the ghosts of Big Star from his background, and the ensuing recordings - cut, it seems, in one oddly-tempered evening - are gloriously ramshackle even before you reach “Baby I Love You,” a Spector classic being tortured to within an inch of its life.

So less an album, more an artifact whose attitude is best summed up by another of the rehearsals, for a song called “The Death of Rock.”There’s a “finished” version of it earlier in the show, and it’s pretty clunky and raw.But the rehearsal makes it sound like ELO.And rock is dead when it finishes.


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Harmony in my Head - UK Power Pop and New Wave 1977-81

(Cherry Red - 3CD box)

It has all kind of blurred together now, but the year or so following the emergence of punk as a musical force in the UK was a time of considerable flux and uncertainty, at least among the nation’s rock critics.

Punk, they all agreed, was effectively a fresh dawn for rock’n’roll - out with the old, in with the new, and all that. But the new alone was not enough.Now they wanted newer, and newer still, and barely a month went by without one magazine or another announcing that the next big thing was…

Power pop was the first of the pretenders, retaining all of punk’s speed and energy, but wired around less contentious themes than the founding flavor tended to favor.And, for five minutes or so, you could shake and shimmy to the likes of the Records, the Yachts, the Jags, Any Trouble and Tonight… oh, and the Rich Kids, who more or less kicked the whole thing off via founding ex-Pistol Glen Matlock’s alleged adoration of the Beatles.

Their eponymous debut 45 still sounds great today, a rush of adrenalin, a lungful of oxygen, and a thousand meaty fists pumping the air to the rhythm.And it’s not alone.Although power pop in its purest form devours less than half of this 76 track collection, you know it when you hear it and it’s hard not to grin out loud.

But maybe even the box’s compilers knew that you can have way too much of a good thing, and that’s where the “and New Wave’ portion of the title comes in.Partly because too much smiling makes your face ache, but also because the other thing about power pop was, nobody ever satisfactorily defined its limits, and that included the artists who were making it.

Nick Lowe, for instance, certainly belongs, but not, perhaps, with “Born a Woman.”Likewise Squeeze and “Take Me I’m Yours” - that gloriously flatulent funk rhythm is a lot of things, but it sounds very strange burbling between the Distractions and Any Trouble.The Barracudas were always more surf than pop, and Eater were too bratty for any single genre to hold them.And as for the Doctors of Madness, included here with “Sons of Survival”… that’s just plain contrary.

None of this, however, is a negative.None of it detracts from the sheer pleasure of immersing yourself in the box, as it runs from the opening title track by the Buzzcocks, through the Boys, the Hot Rods, the Drones, Those Naughty Lumps, Amazorblades, the Flys, the Stiffs, the Ruts… oddly, no Advertising or Boyfriends, but again, you can have too much of a good thing.

But we take a peek at the Mod revival that was coming down the road; preview some names that would mean more in a few years time; and we thrill to one hit wonders that sometimes weren’t even hits, but they should have been - the New Hearts’ “Plain Jane,” the Piranhas’ “Jilly,” Bram Tchaikovsky’s “Sarah Smiles,” Radio Stars’ “The Real Me,” Tonight’s “Drummer Man”…Ah, the beat goes on forever.

The Action

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Shadows and Reflections

(Grapefruit/Cherry Red - 4CD box)

The Action have seen a lot of… er, action… just recently, courtesy of Sidewalk Society’s album length tribute to their never-completed Rolled Gold album project.So it’s smart timing indeed to remind newcomers just what a great band they were, back in their mid-sixties heyday, and beyond it, too.

Four discs in a nifty bookcase package tell the story of what the liners convincingly argue was the hippest mod band of them all, a north London quintet that had everything on their side - a deal with Parlophone and George Martin for a producer; a reputation for blowing the Who offstage when they shared a residency at the Marquee Club; and a stream of 45s that were themselves quintessential Mod classics - “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “I’ll Keep Holding On,” “Baby You’ve Got It”…

But there was more to the Action than that; more to it than Reg Presley’s flawless vocals and the band’s sense of immaculate style; more, even, then the sheer effervescence of (almost) every note of music they played.

Maybe we are all at a disadvantage today, unable to catch the band in its in-concert prime, steaming up a London club while the Vespas pile up on the forecourt, and the parkas melt in the heat.But still, one disc devoted to their singles and Beeb sessions; a second stacked with out-takes and mixes; a third reprising the original Rolled Gold and a fourth full of odds and ends, including four earlier recordings as the Boys… and you know what?There’s moments on that latter disc, a Decca audition and some live and TV cuts that might well be even more powerful than the singles themselves.The sound quality isn’t the best, but the speakers smoke regardless.

Tangerine Dream

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The Pink Years 1970-1973

(Esoteric/Cherry Red - 4CD box set)

Four albums, four discs, but what albums they were.For four years before Tangerine Dream impacted on the Anglo-American mainstream with Phaedra and Rubycon, they labored away in their homeland, humming the disconnected melodies of deep space isolation.

Electronic Meditation (1970), Alpha Centauri (1971), Zeit (1972) and Atem (1973) have all been reissued and repackaged so many times before that it’s hard to raise a smile when they roll out once again. But with excellent new remasters, attention-to-detail-packed sleeves, and a handy box to keep them all in, The Pink Years is definitely the last word on the quartet, and the only version you need if you don’t own the original vinyl.

Distinctly similar to, but simultaneously far removed from the albums that followed in their immediate aftermath, this is Tangerine Dream at their purest, dark and beautiful, mysterious and magical.More experimental than they’d become once they were out in the open, these are the records where the band remained intrigued by the possibilities that lay before them, as opposed to simply mastering the textures they’d already unearthed.

Zeit, in particular, rates among the most chilling electronic albums of its era, while Alpha Centauri takes the rock out of the cosmos, but still has all the propulsion it needs.Atem melds more melody to the momentum, while Electronic Meditation is so delightfully misleadingly titled that you could tie yourself in knots practicing yoga to its currents.

The Tangerine Dream discography is a Behemothic beast, and a lot of what has been released in their name really shouldn’t be given house room.These four albums, though, should be in every collection.