Reviews: Eric Burdon, Idle Race, Rowan-Morrison, Martin Gordon, Soulless Party, the Four Seasons of Love

A new Animals box set, an Idle Race deluxe, four CDs of '60s madness, and releases from Rowan-Morrison, the Soulless Party and Martin Gordon.
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1

By Dave Thompson

Eric Burdon & the Animals
When I Was Young: The MGM Recordings 1967-1968
(Esoteric)

There’s a school of thought (and Spin Cycle does not necessarily disagree) that the music that Eric Burdon was making under the Animals’ name at the end of the band’s existence wasn’t simply the best that the group ever conjured. It also epitomized everything that American psych aspired to’ the hope, the promise, the wide-eyed innocence and, ultimately, the crash.

Listened to with hindsight, it is true that a lot of Burdon’s lyrics seem twee; his sentiments are over-egged; while his vision is either implausibly simplistic, or impossibly cynical, depending upon where your opinions lie. Songs like “Monterey” and “San Franciscan Nights” feel more like journalistic reportage than hit singles today, while “When I Was Young” surely contains one of the most groan-inducing rhymes in rock history. (See if you can guess which one.)

But adjust your own mindset accordingly, and the four albums wrapped up in this five CD box set (the additional disc is the mono version of Winds of Change) and it is nigh on impossible not to get wrapped up in Burdon’s world. One in which he painstakingly spelled out everything that he felt the end of the sixties portended, and if he lapsed into cliche or absurdity sometimes… well, he was scarcely alone in that.

The box is not complete - absent is Eric is Here, the transitional point between old and new Animals, but that’s not necessarily a loss. It was with Winds of Change that the group assumed its true identity, and the three albums that followed - The Twain Shall Meet, Every One of Us and the majestically sprawling Love Is simply hone that first set’s energies to what is more or less perfection.

Indeed, the latter set, a double album, might well be the pinnacle of the Animals’ entire existence, and that despite being seldom mentioned today under any circumstances.

According to legend (and the liner notes agree), Love Is was recorded after the band’s label rejected a whole set of new songs, while still demanding fresh product. The band responded with what is effectively a collection of covers… “River Deep Mountain High,” “Ring Of Fire,” “To Love Somebody,” “Coloured Rain”… each drawn out to new-found lengths, each a masterpiece of loosey goosey improvisation and Burdon’s own peculiar pizzaz. In musical terms, it should be a mess. Instead, it’s one of the most inspiring records of its age.

Its predecessors were no slouches, however. Play through the three discs and any number of songs emerge that simply scream “1967” in your ear - “White Houses,” “Sky Pilot,” “Year of the Guru,” “It’s All Meat” - while Burdon lets fly not only with that so remarkable voice, but also an honesty that is itself quite unnerving. People didn’t write songs this plainly-spoken in those days, and the impression is that many of Burdon’s best lyrics were either excerpted trains of thought, or snatches of conversation that he randomly set to music.

They work, too, whether he is responding to Jimi Hendrix’s challenge with “Yes I Am Experienced,” or ruminating on his past behavior with “Good Times,” and if you’re looking for even a reminder of the bluesman that inspired the original Animals, there’s a “Saint James Infirmary” here that leaves every other in its dust. As the New Animals did to the majority of their peers….

2

Rowan: Morrison
Fields of Frost
(Millersounds)

Stephen Stannard’s announcement, earlier this year, that he will be retiring the Rowan Amber Mill alias under which he has been making music for the best part of the last decade might not have made too many headlines.

But for everyone who has been listening, and thrilling, to his distinctly idiosyncratic interpretations of what we now call “folk horror” will know that one of the most brilliant lights on the modern folk scene deserved a lot more than a simple snuffing out. And, if Fields of Frost does turn out to be his final prolusion, then the music industry should be ashamed of itself.

Linking once again with occasional collaborator singer Angeline Morrison, Fields of Frost is a twelve track collection that follows on from 2014’s Silent Night Songs for a Cold Winter’s Evening, in that the mood remains wintry, occasionally Christmassy… deliciously dark and superbly performed (the harmonies throughout “Coventry Carol” are truly sublime). Morrison has a voice that just wraps itself around you, while Stannard’s multi-instrumental accompaniment and production paint the entire album into firelight and panelled walls, while the wind howls unheard behind the wainscotting. It’s a feel that a lot of artists today aim for, but Rowan Amber Mill is one of the few who consistently get it right. We’re going to miss that as well, when it’s gone.

It might be getting a little too spring-like to truly appreciate this album right now… a well-blended mash of traditional song, carols, and new compositions, it isn’t quite a seasonal record, but with a title like that, it certainly isn’t not one. But there is certainly no excuse for not firing up the duo’s take on “Lyke Wake Dirge” in any weather… either the fully accompanied one, or the a capella version that almost closes the album. Because if this is the Mill’s final turn, there could be no better way of processing it out of this world.

3

various artists
A Band for All Seasons - Songs from the Four Seasons of Love 1966-1969
(Fruits de Mer)

Two years on from the much loved and justly praised three LP Three Seasons of Love collection that celebrated Fruits de Mer’s tenth anniversary, the world’s favorite fish returns to the same theme for a vastly expanded four CD edition, adding one more season and what might be an even stronger sackful of new songs.

Well, we say “new,” but of course nothing here was written after the years in question, and some of it was recorded back then as well - the Purple Gang’s cover of Syd Barrett’s “Boon Tune,” for example. Sometimes, old heroes revisit former pastures… the Pretty Things covering “Loneliest Person,” Marc Brierley rerecording his own “Welcome to the Citadel”… and you’ll spot other legends lurking as well. The Yardbirds, the Electric Prunes, Chad and Jeremy, Fuchsia, July.

The heart of the album, though, is a snapshot of the best in modern psych/beat/space rock etc, digging into influences that may not always be apparent in their work, but lie beneath regardless. As for the songs themselves - four CDs allow for a generous sixty-plus tracks, with plenty of space to spread out as well.

At the gentler end of the spectrum, Us and Them tackle Neil Young with all the fragility you would hope for; Schizo Fun Addict take on the Mamas and the Papas; the Honey Pot fly high with “Kites.” But balance them against Cary Grace’s fabulous revision of Hendrix’s “1983,” Icarus Peel’s demonic “Beck’s Bolero,” the Luck of Eden Hall encountering early Alice Cooper.

We spin from psych-kite (“Pictures of Matchstick Men” redrawn by the Jeremy Band) to showtune-a-delia (Jack Ellister’s “Aquarius”), from the delightfully dippy (Anton Barbeau’s “Sunshine Superman”) to the frankly chilling - Permanent Clear Light’s version of Van Der Graaf’s “Refugees” leaves us starving still for the Fruits de Mer tribute to Peter Hammill. They know they want to do it….

Frankly, we could be here all day picking out themes, directions and notions from the track listing. Suffice to say, if you had to find sixty-something bands to record sixty-something songs from the last years of the sixties, while demanding that everyone from Neil Diamond to Cream was represented, you really wouldn’t need to look further than this. And while we do mourn the label’s decision not to put the entire package out on vinyl as well (seven LPs would probably do it), we will wonder instead why they’ve not put it out on cassette? Four tapes, with room for even more bonus tracks. Do it!!!

4

The Idle Race
The Birthday Party Deluxe Edition
(Cherry Red/Grapefruit)

No matter how many copybooks Jeff Lynne may have blotted with the bloated conceit of the Electric Light Orchestra, there’s no denying that the lad had promise when he first emerged, helming the Idle Race through the first flush of psych, and gifting the world with one of the genre’s most visceral epics, “The Skeleton and the Roundabout.”

Seamlessly capturing every one of the threads that span through the English underground of the time, from Edwardian storytelling to eclectic instrumentation, the timeless tale of fairground rivalry is certainly up there with any of the movement’s most sainted moments, from “See Emily Play” to “Granny Takes a Trip.” Proving, lest his subsequent antics convince you otherwise, that he did know a good hit single sound when he heard one.

As it happened, the skeleton was not a smash, but no matter. The band’s The Birthday Party debut album more or less followed the roundabout’s round about route through the psychedelic jungle, to emerge the closest thing to a time capsule since Syd Barrett’s Floyd out-takes were first buried away.

And its reappearance on a twofer that matches the stereo and mono pressings, then tacks on ten bonus tracks, is more or less everything you need to know about Birmingham’s second finest… there were three subsequent albums, but once Lynne had decamped to Birmingham’s very finest, the Move, a lot of the oomph had gone out of the band, and they were last heard doing Hotlegs covers for the Brazilian market. Whereas Lynne… ah, but let’s not start that up again.

Digipacked and bookletted, this is the first major Idle Race release since the mid-90s Back to the Story package, which rounded up the band’s entire stereo output, also across two discs. Given the choice of the two, this is the one to grab, however. The mastering is superb, the bonus tracks well selected and the mono version might not be as great on the cans, man, as its stereo compadre, but it has a punch that could push your brain out of your bottom.

All aboard!

5

Martin Gordon
OMG
(Radiant Future)

Excluding comps, live, demos and detritus, it’s album the ninth-time (or thereabouts) for the redoubtable Mr G, and once again it’s a collection of inimitably twisted pop songs, zeroing in on the kind of things that worry some folk, thrill others and pass completely unnoticed by many until Gordon happens to shine a light on them.

Who else, after all, would write a love song from the perspective of a drone (“I wanna hover around your intimate spaces”)? Or revisit 10cc’s “Old Wild Men” lament for the ageing rock stars of the future, once that future has arrived… “I’ll stay at home and read a book, and try to classify the drugs I took.”

There is a political bent to a lot of the songs, Gordon railing against a reasonably predictable array of modern monsters. But even if you disagree with his sentiments, it’s hard to kick the tunes out of your head; Spin Cycle has said it before, but there are few songsmiths around who can actually top an in-form Martin Gordon when it comes to constructing infuriating earworms, and OMG is, once again, loaded with the creatures.

Lyrically, it is certainly his most inchoate album, but even when you can tell he’s genuinely annoyed about something, he can’t help wrapping it up like a number one hit, and you can’t help thinking, “I wish Abba had covered this” Or something like that.

If you do own past Gordon solo prolusions, of course, you know all this already. And if you don’t, you should. Either way, OMG is one more mighty achievement from a man who’s now piled up so many that we impatiently await his first lousy record. Will he dare pick up the challenge?

6

The Soulless Party
The Black Meadow Archive Volume 1
(Castles in Space)

Accompanying the publication of Chris Lambert’s book of the same name, the Soulless Party’s latest excursion into the darkness of the Black Meadow is, like their first, a chilling journey, more akin to the soundtrack to an unnamed documentary than a simple album, and probably best heard with the book open on your lap. “Probably,” because you’ll find it demanding your attention as much as the words, and that can be awfully distracting.

Ten largely string-driven pieces match with ten of the tales in the book - a very well-chosen ten, too, each loaded with the elements that give voice to the otherwise voiceless music. “The Village Under the Lake” and “Ghost Planes” are particularly effective, and not only for the deployment of the expected sound effects. But the instrumentation throughout is effective, and the album as a whole suffers from just one fault… at under 40 minutes, it’s too short. The Meadow demands more.

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