The Mayor of Toytown is Dead (CD/LP)
You could approach this album from the caliber of Mordecai’s collaborators - Dave Lambert of the Strawbs (and, before that, the Fire) layering some spectacular fuzz over “Billywitch” - a rumination on the lifecycle of the stag beetle, apparently - and yowl across “Dissent into Chaos.” Icarus Peel and Crystal Jacqueline. Catherine Earnshaw and Deborah Pike. And more.
You could approach it for the sake of the cover of “Golf Girl,” Caravan’s lewdest hour (well, one of them), popping up at the midway point and just as rambunctiously joyful as it ever was in the land of grey and pink, even as Smyth slows it down and mourns its lyric. Up there with the version of Peter Hammill’s “Institute of Mental Health” that he donated to a comp a few years ago, “Golf Girl” positively rings with such affectionate invention (or should that be inversion?) that you come close to forgetting it was a cover in the first place.
But best of all, you could approach it for its own remarkable sake.
The Mayor of Toytown might be dead, but he went out with a bang.The marathon “River of Sleep,” just two songs into the cycle, layers Crimson King textures with apocalyptic lyrics and the first of several Van der Graaf horns. But suggestions that Smyth’s house is now littered with dog-eared copies of Prog magazine would (hopefully) fall far short of the mark.
The textures here might be epic, but the delivery is defiantly punk… and that’s not the “punk” of the “one-two-free-faw on the dole so shut yer hole” of lazy critical shorthand, as opposed to punk in the same way that Van der Graaf were only prog if you didn’t actually listen to them, and Can were Krautrock until you bought the records.
There’s that same sense of not even knowing the rules before consciously smashing them; that same eye for the chord that would jar the dreaming listener; and that same ability to drop in a rhythm that sounds like the tape was put on backwards (“Dissent into Chaos,” again) And even when things do calm sweetly for the almost Beatlesque “Heading Back West,” it’s only so “A Knife and a Key” can drag you down with brass punctuation, and lyrics that are poised on the edge of despair.
But “Happy” is happy, an early sixties kitchen sink drama without the potful of diapers steaming on the stove; and “Stay with the Pulse” so playfully mashes “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” into Bowie’s “V-2 Schneider,” that it really is a case of having your cake and smearing it all over someone else’s face.
Last time around, Smyth’s closest musical compatriots seemed to be that line of English eccentric songsmiths whose names are forever invoked by psych nostalgics. This time around… well, Hammill again comes to mind. But even Hammill doesn’t always match that comparison, and so, the answer’s no. Mordecai Smyth is out on his own, a one man phenomenon whose output-so-far might be grotesquely slow (this is only his second full album in six years, and the intervening comps don’t take up the slack), but for whom, the wait was well worth it.
Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas
The World of Captain Beefheart (CD)
It’s probably not a combination you ever imagined occurring… Lucas, fine; he has history with the Captain. But Nona Hendryx is most obviously associated with Labelle, and her solo soul sets too, and only those who study credits closely will know how she also worked with Talking Heads and Bill Laswell. Not that that’s the strongest recommendation, but wait! And listen!
A dozen Beefheart originals unfurl, beginning with a blistering “Sun Zoom Spark,” Lucas’s guitar a churning garage, Hendryx’s voice a thunderstorm. “Sure ‘Nuff ’n Yes I Do,” “Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles,” “Tropical Hot Dog Night,” “When It Blows Its Stacks” - the surprises keep coming, and even when the mood is at its most relaxed (a deeply soulful “I’m Glad”), the pairing remains powerful, the sonics superb.
“When Big Joan Sets Up” echoes the original even down to the wordless whoops, while Richard Dworkin’s drums on “Sugar ’n Spikes” are a symphony in their own right. “The Smithsonian Institute Blues” retains all the slithering beauty it ought to, and across the disc, you can tell just how much fun the pair are having… so much that, a few songs in, you completely forget your original uncertainty, and just relish every untutored yelp and ad lib that Hendryx drapes across Lucas’s unhinged guitar.
A glorious experience.
The Dawn Albums Collection (5xCD box set)
Five discs strong, so that’s every album Mungo and his mates made for the Dawn (Janus in the US) label through the first half of the seventies, plus the b-sides of singles, stray non-album EP cuts… everything, in fact, that reminds us just how inventive the band used to be.
As if we need reminding. “In the Summertime,” the band’s first big hit, may be firmly ingrained in the fabric of oldies radio, but it was a deceptive little monster; Mungo Jerry in their true colors were part old-time jug band, part-blistered blues machine, and part macabre storytellers - particularly throughout Paul King’s tenure as frontman Ray Dorset’s only rival in the songwriting stakes.
That role did not end well; King and bandmate Colin Earl quit following the third album, You Don’t Have to be in the Army, and while the former went on to record one of the crucial albums of the era, the solo Been in the Pen Too Long, Mungo Jerry commenced the slow decline that would see the hits wither within a couple of years.
Before that happened, however (and in isolated flashes thereafter), the Mungo Jerry and Electronically Tested albums still stand as vital outriders within the UK’s underground fixation with acid, folk and twisted blues, capable of swinging from the raucous stoned singalong of “Have a Whiff on Me” to the positively dangerous rhythms of “Baby Jump,” a song that might have started life as an in concert version of “Brand new Cadillac,” but quickly took on a chart-topping life of its own.
There’s a live excerpt from the Hollywood Festival (in England) that brought the band to prominence in the first place; there’s the glorious swagger of “Mother *!*!*! Boogie” and the leering nostalgia of “Memoirs of a Stockbroker”; the ineffable pop of “Lady Rose,” the doomy landscapes of “Black Bubonic Plague”… even if you never play the rest of the box, those first two albums are peerless, and the three that follow have their moments, too.
The hit single title track of the Army album, and the savage slash of “Open Up”; the glorious cover that bedraped the Boot Power album; the maniacal optimism of “Alright Alright Alright,” Mungo’s last major hit and still so much the soundtrack of the summer of ’73 that you wonder why anybody else even bothered. All fall out of the box as fresh and frenzied as could be, while the b-sides and rarities will leave you itching to pick up the original EPs as well.
Plus, for the true archaeologists among us, there are even places for “Say Goodnight,” a last-album out-take that only found a home on the band’s Golden Hour compilation; the Italy-only single “Santo Antonio Santo Francisco”; and three Army out-takes as well, two of which are Paul King compositions and might, had they been featured on the original album, have delayed the split altogether. Although it’s probably a bit late to be thinking of that now….
80 Aching Orphans (4xCD box set)
Either you love the Residents, or you should skip to the next review. Either you believe this album’s cover is one of the sweetest ever printed, or you should cover it in photos of somebody else, and don’t you dare crack the shrinkwrap because there’s more of the same inside.
Four discs were never going to be sufficient to capture the full range of the Residents’ vision… how could they be? However many albums they’ve made since their mid-seventies dawn are scarcely enough to hold everything in.
But these eighty aching orphans, each one surgically sliced from its original surroundings and left to stand on its own two feet, nevertheless act as exquisite ambassadors for the greater feasts that await, and if a band like the Residents could ever be accused of having enjoyed a few “greatest hits,” they’re all here as well.
The mutant re-evaluation of “Satisfaction.” The so-quirky-it-hurts “Constantinople.” “Jailhouse Rock” and “Jambalaya.” Occasionally, you’d hear untutored dumb critics describe the Residents as a novelty covers band, and these are what they heard. Except they’re only novelty covers if you take them out of context, and the Residents are only a band if you believe the spoilsports who try and unveil the eyeballs’ true identities. Fact - they don’t have any. These people really are eyeballs in suits (or whatever else they choose to wear), and the music here isn’t music at all. It’s the sound of the spheres.
Four discs are bolstered with rarities and scarcities, excerpts from epics, remixes and odds. If you enjoy the Residents, it’s the perfect party piece - just put each disc on shuffle and see how long the hard stuff lasts. If you don’t, you’ve not even read this line, so who cares what you think?
Either way, in a world that is overrun by box sets, all claiming to be the definitive article, 80 Aching Orphans is but a modest snapshot of a peculiar cult that barely tells an iota of the story it portrays. Buy it, play it, do what you will. But remember - the eyeballs are always watching.
Soulsville USA - A Celebration of Stax (3CDs)
And so the sixtieth anniversary celebration of Stax Records continues, now with a triple set that rounds up no less than sixty tracks that might look like just another collection of the label’s biggest hits, but is actually something far greater than that - a snapshot of a decade-in-time, during which Stax, alongside Motown, didn’t simply dominate the American (and hence, the world) R&B scene, it redefined it in its own image.
Always somehow grimier than Motown; harder-hitting and funkier too, Stax was the label you turned to when you were sick of simply smooching on the dancefloor, a stack of 45s that not only knew all the nuances of teenaged fever, they weren’t afraid to poke at them, too.
From Carla Thomas’s “Gee Whiz” through to Rufus Thomas’s “Push and Pull,” a decade (1960-71… okay, a bit more than a decade) full of classics rounded up everything from Otis Redding to Ollie and the Nightingales (“I Got a Sure Thing” - still tremendous after all these years); Sam and Dave to Booker T (“Green Onions”! “Time is Tight”!! “Soul Limbo”!!!); the Mar-Keys and Mable John, Eddie Floyd and the Mad Lads.
The liners list all the chart statistics, but the dates are largely irrelevant; you’ll know exactly where you were the first time you heard these songs, the moment you hear them again. And if disc three, preserving the last few years of Stax’s lifespan, is a little less tactile than those that came before, then that’s how far Stax had come; from a little label whose first shot was the Veltones’ “Fool in Love” (and who among us remembers that coming out?), to the blueprint for all that the seventies would deliver.
The rest of the world had caught up with Memphis, but still Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft” and the Bar-Kay’s son of same resonate like few other records ever can, and Stax still scored monster hits, too. It was 1967 before the label had its first pop number one (“Soul Man,” by Sam and Dave), but 1972 when it racked up its last, the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.”
And that’s what this package does. It takes you there, and you’ll want to stay.
Chariot Rising (CD)
It’s strange, but if you flip through a collection of the most storied albums of Britain’s psych sixties, the vast majority of them were ignored at the time. Singles, too, but that’s understandable - psych might have been the sound of the underground, but the overground was flooding the market as well, and how can you expect to be picked up for pop fame and fortune when you have to get around Englebert first?
Albums, though, were weightier propositions, and with the music press maturing alongside the musicians, discs like the Kinks’ Village Green, the Pretties’ SF Sorrow and add-your-own-favorite here (July? Tomorrow? The Godz? Idle Race?) really ought to have seized more senses than they did. But they didn’t, and it was left to later generations to discover them, and then let the rest of the world know what it missed out on.
Chariot Rising slips seamlessly into such illustrious company. The first and only album by a band whose one-and-only “hit,” “Madman Running Through the Fields,” was not a hit at all, was released in 1967, late inside the band’s ten month lifespan, and in many ways it’s indicative of everything that went wrong with psychedelia.
Frontman Zoot Money was an unrepentant R&B man, after all, and he admits in the liners that the new band was built around a desire to make some money. “New bands like Pink Floyd were [doing it], so… we decided to move on and do something very different.”
Very different indeed. Chariot Rising does retain Money’s early sensibilities to a degree, but titles like “Sun Came Bursting Through My Cloud,” “Fourpenny Bus Ride” and “Four Firemen” could have fallen straight out of the psychedelic thesaurus, and the lyrics can be pretty drippy, too.
Ah, but that’s only a part of it. From beginning (“Madman” of course) to end, Chariot positively oozes period sensibilities and, in subsequent ages when the niceties of contemporary cause- and-effect had been erased by a purer appreciation of the actual music, any sense of brown ale-soaked mutton dressed as psilocybic lamb was completely exterminated. You might be able to download a band’s entire lifetime in an afternoon, but you lose the reasons they did what they did. And, without that, sad to say, you learn nothing.
As acidic as it’s melodic, as manic as it’s mad, Chariot Rising ticks every box you could dream of, from the frankly bonkers guitar solo that Andy Somers (yes, the one that became that Andy Summers) spills over “World War Three,” to the mystic eastern twanging of the two part “Soma,” and on to the swirly optimism of the closing “High Flying Bird” - “four thousand people with flowers in their hair walking around just feeling the air….”
Great liners, remarkable remastering, Chariot Rising has risen again.
is Alive and Well and Living in Buenos Aires (Heavy, Frenz - the Solo Anthology 2001-2017) 4CD box set
The Auteurs, blah blah blah. Black Box Recorder blah blah blah. You know who Luke Haines is, even if you haven’t heard of him, and if you don’t, here’s a reminder. Luke Haines is a bloody-minded dilettante; a death at an eight-year-old’s birthday party; a Jane Austen romantic adrift in modern Noo Yawk (yes, it has to be pronounced like that); a seventies obsessive on a 21st century guilt trip… everything, in fact, that you could demand of a pop star, without him actually having to bother with being one.
He could have been one, of course, and in the first flash of the Britpop era, which the Auteurs more or less eschewed out of spite, he could have been. BBR, too, scored a string of hits, and that despite their frontman wandering off and making a concept album about the Red Army Faction.
The new century, however, dawned without them, and Haines has since embarked on the kind of career that even the likes of Peter Hammill would describe as meandering - a movie soundtrack here, a concept album there, a great Nick Lowe cover that sounded like he hated the song, and a sharp eye for the kind of seventies nostalgia that has fired a thousand English novels, which he then mainlines full of bitterness and bile, to suggest he doesn’t approve of that either.
In other words, everything you would add to a pop star, if you were building one out of Lego. At last! An idol with feet full of fangs. Scott Walker, if his first four solo albums had sounded like their early-eighties cheerleaders all led you to believe. David Bowie, if he’d lived his entire career in reverse. The Edgar Broughton Band, if they’d kept the demons in. Andreas Baader, if he’d joined Amon Düül.
You don’t buy Luke Haines records, you obsessively hoard them, then sit in the dark with a drink of something nasty, knowing that everything you think he is singing or writing about, he would vehemently disagree with. Underneath it all, he’s probably a lovely chap, mild-mannered and polite… years ago, a writer for Britain’s NME accused Lou Reed (the title of one of Haines songs, incidentally) of keeping a picture of Karen Carpenter in a 42nd Street True Love locket around his neck.
Haines may have one of those, as well. But if you asked him, he’d say he’d drawn glasses and fangs on her face, and appended a speech bubble too, quoting something profound by Alan Vega, or giving directions to the secret tunnels beneath a top security government lab.
And that, all that, is what this box set sounds like. Because you don’t need to know that it rounds up the highlights (or some of them, anyway, because everything else is a highlight too) from sixteen years worth of soundtracks, solo sets, EPs and out-takes. That it includes one whole disc of songs that you probably won’t hear elsewhere; and another that is subtitled “Unprofessional Rock’N’Roll” (to distinguish it from the earlier “Professional Rock’N’Roll”) which is drawn from his last three albums (New York in the ‘70s, British Nuclear Bunkers, Smash the System and the EP Adventures in Dementia), and is probably the most thoughtfully sneering and ineffably leering reflection of genius that this entire benighted century has delivered.
You don’t even need to know that Luke Haines is a genius, because you wouldn’t dare tell him that. He’s a pop star, too, and don’t tell him that, either. He doesn’t live in Buenos Aires, though… but you can bet he knows a man that does.
The Rowan Amber Mill
Give me three good reasons for reviewing an album that is now seven years old, and growing older all the time?
One; we didn’t review it at the time, and that was a mistake.
Two: CD Baby have just unearthed a box of them, long after it fell out of print, and are selling them for $5 each
Three: It’s boring waiting for the Mill’s latest album, so let’s go back to the first one.
Originally released in 2010, Heartwood is one of those albums that you feel you’ve known forever, fourteen generally gentle slices of rural English folk, shot through with all the scary little undercurrents which that term now demands - but which, way back then, were less of an open secret.
Today, a newcomer needs only don a jerkin and spell “weird” weirdly to be acclaimed the high priest of something wicked this way coming. Back then, not so much. And, even if that had been the case, Heartwood - as with the Mill’s entire output since then - slips so far beneath the surface tensions that there genuinely is an unnamed creepiness percolating through the sun-dappled trees.
The opening “English Shire,” all forest dark and corpse-in-the-copse, blueprints at least some of what’s to come, with Sharon Eastwood’s vocal caught somewhere between chorister and echo, and laying down the foundations for what ought to be the prettiest piano-played interlude. Except it has teeth.
Medieval tones haunt the landscapes that the Mill oversees; minstrel woodwinds, birdsong and harp, and a woodland orchestra that gnaws your sense of well-being, until you wish they would gather at a renaissance fayre, to show the revelers what they’re really celebrating.
Melodies so old they just couldn’t live longer are reawakened around frontman Stephen Stannard’s lyrics; the woodcutter wends his weary way home and the bees tell the trees the story of the hunter. And we all meet at the end at “Midnight Mill,” a reflective minute of wordless keys that feels like the final frame of a movie that just demands a sequel.
Heartwood, thankfully, has had several. You should run and pick them up, as well.
In Trance (3CD)
(30 Hertz/Cherry Red)
Continuing his excavation of the vaults that has already seen two multi-disc packages come along, Wobble now digs deep into two decades of trance recordings, revisiting some thirteen albums in search of a music that, his liners confess, is “impossible” to provide with “a hard and fast definition.” But he gives it a go, anyway.
“It generally has to be in the moment. It should be a natural emanation of (collective) mind. It’s primarily about setting the right atmosphere.”
In Trance is all atmosphere and, therefore, all impression. Easy enough to say this track came from that album, and that track features this player (Harold Budd, Evan Parker and Jaki Liebezeit are among the featured guests; the Invaders of the Heart feature on several tracks), but until you actually sit and listen, In Trance is just a title.
It’s the music that sets the mood and, across three stuffed CDs, it’s a compulsive one, neither wholly ambient or poundingly techno, compulsively oscillating or dreamily drifting, but capable of glancing in each of those directions on occasion. And a lot of others, as well.
Derrick Harriott and the Crystalites
Psychedelic Train (CD)
Gay Feet Every Night (CD)
(both Doctor Bird/Cherry Red)
Two more exhumations from the Jamaican archives - the first, a classic 1970 set from the veteran Harriott; the second, the long out-of-print debut album by producer Sonia Pottinger, and both overflowing with bonus tracks.
Harriott’s album especially fascinates. Not a Jamaican take on its titular genre, it nevertheless glances in that direction for certain effects and energies, with the title track, in particular, layered with appropriate guitar - think late sixties Psychedelic Shack-era Temptations, add a reggae beat and Harriott’s so-smoothly expressive vocal, and you’ll be close (later, “Hum My Song” even quotes the Temp’s “Runaway Child Running Wild”). Then flip to the end of the disc, and “Psychedelic Train, Chapter 3” takes the same journey in dynamic flute-led dub fashion.
In between times, things conform more to type; Harriott classics “Message from a Black Man,�� “No Man is an Island,” “Groovy Situation” and “Tang! Tang! Festival Song” all appear, the latter just one of thirteen well-chosen bonus tracks which themselves track as far back as 1967 to serve up a crafted lesson for anyone who has yet to distinguish their rocksteady from their reggay.
It’s often said that the Jamaican music industry did not truly appreciate the possibilities of long playing records until Island Records showed Bob Marley how to do it. Psychedelic Train is one of the many that utterly disprove that insistence.
Gay Feet Every Night, on the other hand, is very much a product of its times, a mid-1960s showcase for a woman who would become one of Jamaica’s premier record producers, but was still regarded as finding her feet at this point.
If that was so, she found them very quickly. A dozen tracks make up the original LP, including one, “First Session,” that the liners hazard might well have been Pottinger’s first time at the controls, overseeing Baba Brooks and his Recording Band. And that same combo remains in focus for the remainder of the album, either in their own right or backing up the likes of Joe White and Chuck, the Saints, the Techniques and Claudelle Clark, and a dozen additional bonus tracks too, all adding up to a remarkable summary of Pottinger’s first year or so of operation.
Even more excitingly, many of the tracks are new to CD, having avoided the attentions of any number of past compilations. Indeed, if Gayfeet itself made the transition to disc, it did so without many people noticing - and yet it stands proud, and possibly proudest, within any collection of period LPs.
Agent Orange ’92 plus Drug of Choice Sessions (CD)
The latest and, apparently, last scheduled collection of the late Lowery’s solo work is centered around what should have been his finest hour yet, an album recorded in Edinburgh between 1992 and 1994 with a new band, Drug of Choice; a new energy; and… almost… a whole new set of songs. “Almost,” because, before work began on the album, Lowery and co set about rerecording what we might call his greatest hit so far, Ski Patrol’s 1980 “Agent Orange.”
And what a rerecording it was, savage guitar, droning undertones, impassioned vocals and a drum thrash over the closing moments that… although you don’t realize this when it first kicks in… is simply the overture to absolute chaos. It opens this collection and, in anybody else’s hands, it might have climaxed it, too. But Lowery was not anybody else.
Work on Cooler, as the album would be titled, commenced the following year, and the sonics that guided “Agent Orange ‘92” were, if anything, even more pronounced. The rockabilly rhythms, the droning electronics, the meltdown guitars… listen to “Love to Come” and imagine if Suicide had backed up the Shangri-Las.
“Somewhere to Crash,” if the Milkshakes met the MC5 and brought the party back to your house, then played “I Wanna Be Your Dog” on the sofa.
“Just Bored,” which found a lurching lope and growled its way towards a sharper Nick Cave.
And the epic “Fever Nest,” seven minutes of invocation and alarm, and a glimpse of Lowery’s poetry in its near-naked state. Then the band drift in, one dislocated instrument at a time, and it’s as if Ravel had written a post-punk bolero, before Drug of Choice mugged him in an alleyway.
It’s a savage album, an unsettling one and, for a moment, it looked as though it had a chance. Germany’s Three Lines label released it in late 1993 and the reviews it received were, apparently, adoring. There wasn’t too many of them, though, and with no British or American deals forthcoming (and Lowery’s own attentions, in any case, diverted by a family crisis), Closer was soon far away. It has remained there ever since.
Lowery passed away in 2001, and it would be 2014 before his legacy was finally hauled out of the darkness. Now, following on from retrospectives of Ski Patrol and the later Folk Devils, and two past Spectacle compilations, this is apparently the end of the road.
It oughtn’t be. Lowery’s poetry deserves to be read; his demos and outstanding sessions demand to be heard. Who’s to say whether there’s an audience for them, or sufficient people to rub out the genie of the crowdfunding bottle, and why should it matter either way? Ian Lowery is the musical hero you never knew you worshipped, and the catalog you need to catch up on. And you need to do it now.
Nathan Hall & the Sinister Locals
Detouring from his traditional roost among the Soft Hearted Scientists, Nathan Hall detours, too, from that band’s overall oeuvre to deliver a vivaciously buoyant collection of songs whose musical joyousness allegedly disguises some genuinely thoughtful, and thought-provoking themes.
“Something tells me we’ll see better days,” muses “We’ll Go Walking,” and maybe we will. But that’s nothing we need to get into here, because the hooks and choruses are just too damned catchy.
“Song for the Flowers” is the best song since the Who’s “Waspman” to include “bzzzzzz” among its primary lyrics; “The Unholy Ghost” is a haunted house with a frantic chant at the end of every verse; and the closing “Theme from ‘The Haunted Pavilion’” sounds like something a Salvation Army Band might play if it met another one coming up the same narrow street.
So no, Hall does not step too far from his soft hearted past. Whether they’re sticking to their name’s own proclivities or not, the Scientists themselves have concocted some of the warmest feeling psychedelia of the modern age, even when their moods are chilly, and Hall retains that comforting heat.
Yet, as “Catacombs of Camden Town” insists, “mustn’t put my life in glass cases, mustn’t be the curator of my own museum, mustn’t take talismans too far” - and that’s a lesson for the audience, too. Effigies is a dozen songs, a dozen vignettes, a dozen pieces of shimmering beauty. Only hard hearted analysts would deny its come-hither charms.