Reviews: Philip Rambow, Revillos, Blancmange, Rowan Amber Mill, Tommy Histon, John Foxx, Trappist Afterland and Grey Malkin, Prince Far-I

Dave Thompson reviews the latest from Philip Rambow, the Revillos, Blancmange, Rowan Amber Mill, Tommy Histon, John Foxx, Trappist Afterland and Grey Malkin, Prince Far-I
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by Dave Thompson

1

Philip Rambow

Canadiana

(Fretsore Records)

Although the four years that have raced by since Philip Rambow’s last album have been very satisfactorily leavened by a string of EPs and online discoveries, still it’s been a long wait. And maybe it’s strange to find him in full-on country mode… think of Rambow, and it’s the electrifyingly glammy soul of seventies renown that usually comes first to mind. But an upcoming box set is going to round that era up, so why not let the lad dig some new potatoes?

The songwriting is as exquisite as ever - Rambow has a way with words that sees him drop the most delightful imagery into a world of dobro and steel. The delightfully doom-laden “Things are Not Looking Good” has to be the first country song you’ve ever heard that uses the word “loo” as anything but the second half of Mary’s name; and, while the vengeful “Get Even” feels like something Dylan might have written for Oh Mercy, “Springtime in my Heart” is a singalong that could have fallen out of the Hank Williams songbook, had he been feeling particularly facetious one day: “If you ‘like’ our Facebook page, we might get big again, be all the rage.”

And then there’s “Piggin’ Out,” which is about… well, piggin’ out. Sing it as you drive from MacDonalds to Popeyes to Wendy’s to wherever, and feel those calories breed.

Basement Jaxx’s Sharlene Hector duets on a couple of tracks (including the standout “Oceans Apart”); elsewhere, Canadiana’s credits see the likes of Pete Thomas, Martin Belmont, Lu Edmonds, Paul Cuddeford and Geraint Watkins line up alongside Rambow - not quite a pub rock supergroup, but a reassuring backdrop for both the music and the imagery, all wrapping up in the shape of one of this year’s most unexpected, unimpeachable and all round shit-kickin’ fun and games -laden new releases.

2

The Revillos

Stratoplay - the Box Set

(Cherry Red Records)

Born from the wreckage of the Rezillos, the comic cut dayglo darlings of the Scottish punk movement, the Revillos were both the direct descendant of that band and the logical outcome to Eugene Reynolds, Fay Fife, and Rocky Rhythm’s continued fascination with all that made the Rezillos tick - science fiction, groovy movies, weird psychedelia… think the Cramps without the day job at the graveyard, or the B-52s if the lobster was off.

And they were good. Better than good. A button badge floating around at the time declared “I quite like the Revillos,” and they really were quite likeable - live, a ball of over-excited flame that left the audience as exhausted as the band members must have been; and on vinyl, an effervescent pounding on that corner of your brain that you keep reserved for fun.

All of which you probably know, so onto the contents of this generously stuffed six CD box set, the complete and utter works of the Revillos, with bonus tracks galore.

Though they were active between 1979 and 1985, the Revillos released just two albums - Rev Up in 1980 and the blink-and-you’ll miss it Attack two years later; both are included here, with the latter appearing in both its original form and as a remixed and bonus tracked 2002 rerelease. Further bonus tracks are splashed across the scene - b-sides, 12-inch singles, radio sessions… basically, if the Revillos did it, it’s here, with the final disc corralling two live shows from 1981, in Colchester and New York, and both capturing the sheer manic exuberance of the Revillos unchained.

Discs four and five, meanwhile, are given over to the band’s 1995-1996 rebirth, live shows caught in Japan (and previously released as Live and on Fire) and London (Totally Alive!), with the bonus tracks on the former including an astonishing Japanese language version of “Scuba Scuba,” and a 1996 BBC session. It’s an exhaustive, and exhausting, listen - it’s nigh on impossible not to leap around once the Revillos start shaking, and if you slam on every disc without taking a break inbetweentimes, you can probably skip the next few gym visits without a second thought

Concisely packaged in a clamshell box, with a glorious booklet to plow through, Stratoplay is, effectively, everything you need to know about fun.

3

Blancmange

Mindset

(Blanc Check records)

Moby once described Blancmange as “probably the most under-rated electronic act of all time,” and if you’ve been listening since the rebirth that brought them back into focus almost ten years ago, it’s not hard to agree with him. Certainly the last two or three albums stand at the apex of 21st century electronics, and Mindset is no exception.

Indeed, and wholly coincidentally, its overlying themes of disconnection (apparent especially in the opening couple of numbers) feel especially appropriate right now.

But it’s a joyful album too, one that glances back at past sounds and sequences as readily as it pushes forward - “Antisocial Media” cunningly merges an early eighties throb to a lyric lashing out at social media’s nastier tendencies.

“Sleep With Mannequins,” meanwhile, has a Depechey-Modey late eighties feel. But “Not Really (Virtual Reality)” is relentless modernity, ugly beauty throbbing beneath emotionless lyric and serving as one of the album’s absolute epic highlights.

4

The Rowan Amber Mill

Among the Gorse to Settle Scores

(Bandcamp)

Ah, the best laid plans… it wasn’t that long ago that Spin Cycle was lamenting Rowan Amber mainman Stephen Stannard’s insistence that his then-latest release was his last. That the mill was to close, the amber would fade and the rowan would be left to grow wild.

But then lockdown came along and what happens? He sits down to record his favorite folk songs and, before you know it, there’s a new mini-album on the shelves. And what a gem it is.

Five songs emerge from the gorse, opening with a yearning “Black is the Colour,” voiced - as is the entire album - by long-ago Rowan Amber Miller Kim Guy. The sound is sparse, the backing almost incidental music behind the main attraction of the lyrics, but it’s a combination that works well.

“Rufford Park Poachers” is fuller, punchy guitar around the landscape keys; while the a cappella “Three Ravens” is simply gorgeous. Later, “Hares on the Mountain” escapes the somewhat mundane settings into which most past renditions have, for whatever reason, locked it. But the highlight must be “Blackleg Miner,” which succeeds in feeling simultaneously jaunty and doomladen, just as the lyric deserves.

An acoustic edit of “Black is the Colour” closes the EP nicely, but nicer still would have been another five tracks in a similar vein to bump the Gorse up to full-length album size. Or perhaps there are other projects being ground up in the mill?

5

Prince Far I

The Trojan Albums Collection

(Doctor Bird)

Reggae legend Prince Far I cut four albums for Trojan during the late seventies/early eighties, a time during which the indefatigable toaster was also recording with Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound, gigging constantly around the UK, and looking set to stretch the age of roots reggae for years into the future.

His murder on September 15, 1983, put an end to that, and the years since that tragedy have seen a confusing number of “new” releases, and jumbled compilations, a jungle which immediately recommends the commonsense lay-out of package - and that’s before you even play the thing.

Arguably Price Far I’s “golden age’ was at the outset of his career, when the albums Psalms for I (1975) and Under Heavy Manners (1976) soundtracked the true peak of roots reggae, and infiltrated the UK punk scene, too. Thereafter, his own release schedule grew confusing, but Free From Sin, Jamaican Heroes, Voice of Thunder and Musical History, the four albums included here, go some way towards making sense of things.

Despite all four being spread across two CDs, with just one bonus track (“David,” appended to Jamaican Heroes, was a 1978 Jamaican b-side), this is a generous package. And while it must be admitted that the four albums are prime, as opposed to primal Prince Far I (there’s nothing here so thunderous as his earliest pronouncements), still the old flashes of rage and premonition remain at large and, at last, a major piece of the Prince’s career has been placed into sensible context.

6

John Foxx and the Maths

Howl

(Metamatic Records)

Forty minutes of unfettered rage, anguish, noise and dynamism… the closest Foxx has come in years to recapturing the punk fury of the first Ultravox album, and the furthest he’s spun from anything approaching whatever you’re expecting in even longer.

Reuniting with Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon might have something to do with it - that instrument tears like a brushfire through the eight songs here, and the electronics can only blaze in reply. Catch the opening screams of “Howl,” and imagine Iggy’s The Idiot if it heard you calling it names; play “name that rash” as “Everything Is Happening At the Same Time” scratches itself raw, and if Foxx’s voice leans a little towards the Bowie side, wait till you hear his Ferry cross the merciless glam stomp of “Tarzan and Jane Revisited.”

There’s a track called “The Dance,” which contrarily makes you want to sit and listen - an oasis of (comparative) calm amidst the frenzied assaults going on elsewhere, and it’s even better when what you think is shaping up to be an instrumental is suddenly shattered a minute-plus in.

And on, through the sinister “New York Times,” the clattering “Last Time I Saw You,” and did he save the best until last? “Strange Beauty” runs in on pulse, crash and again a bit (actually, a lot) of the Bowies, slow and graceful, one body hit succeeding another, and rounding off Howl with a requiem for… well, it’ll be interesting to play it again when life returns to “normal,” and we can put the year-to-date into some kind of context.

New releases by old heroes are a strange beast… no matter how much you enjoy them when they first arrive, all too often they get filed away, and when you want to listen to the artist in question, it’s the older favorites that you move towards first. Howl is unlikely to suffer that fate. It’s an album you will never be able to ignore.

7

Trappist Afterland and Grey Malkin

The Trappist and the Hare

(Bandcamp)

Reflecting upon the amount of excellent, and often innovative music that the two acts here have been responsible for over the years, it’s strange to remember that if you were to place Trappist Afterland and Grey Malkin into one room together, you’d still only have a duo. The sheer complexity and beauty of the records they make leaves you imagining studios full of people, all of them armed with a plethora of instruments, while the engineer complains that he’s already filled his hard drive, and there’s still eighteen more musicians waiting to be taped.

Or something like that.

Two of the most forward looking artists we’ve got going for us in these gray days do indeed come together across this remarkable album, a darkly illuminated frolic through sundry folky atmospheres that never quite touch upon traditional toes, but come delightfully close all the same.

Part of that, of course, is the choice of instrumentation… do you want a list, to prove that point? Okay: electric and acoustic guitar, bass, oud, mandolin, tanpura, Jew's harp, bells, percussion, dulcitar, whir stick, bouzouki, Hammond organ, synths, church organ, xylophone, bells, percussion, drones, bohdran, ebow guitar, mellotron, timpani, samples, drums. Two people, fifty-plus arms. Oh, and what sounds suspiciously like a choir.

Add haunted vocals and echoing harmonies (“Farewell Sundog” is especially effective) and you can see the spirit of the Incredible String Band peering out from around the occasional corner, while “An Error This Time” hums and buzzes out of what might be an antiqued music box playing “Greensleeves.” Which does not in any way prepare you for the empty caves and icy breath of “Cailleach,” or the hornet hum that underpins “Full Snow Moon.” Which, apropos of nothing, would make a great Marianne Faithfull single.

It’s a fabulous album, spectral and raw, a winter-bare forest on a summer afternoon, and further collaborations must be on the way. This is too good to remain a one-off.

8

Tommy “the Piston” Histon

“Cookin’ On Embers”

(Rovertone)

It’s an indication of just how swiftly, and throughly, history forgot Tommy Histon that, fifty-six years after his death in a car accident, the four albums and a heap of singles that he cut between 1949 and 1964 are all but unknown.

Indeed, they would doubtless have remained so had author (and Fruits de Mer Records co-founder) Andy Bracken not chosen Histon as the subject for his latest book… Folklorist: the Tommy Histon Story was published back in February, and judging from the reviews, it not only alerted a lot of people to one of the most adventurous rock’n’rollers of the pre-Beatles era, it opened up several other cans of worms - Histon’s undocumented-until-now belief in, and encounters with, aliens and, even more fascinatingly, his insistence that he could foresee the future.

That much is certainly possible. As Bracken himself has noted, Histon was performing rock'n'roll and rockabilly in 1949; folk-rock in 1953; acid-folk and baroque-folk in 1954 and psychedelic and krautrock in 1964. Who knows what else he might have accomplished had he lived longer?

Attempts to source any of Histon’s original recordings have, for decades, defied even the most persistent seekers. But, in the short time since the book’s publication, 1949’s “Cookin’ On Embers” has resurfaced on a multitude of on-line sites, a pounding blast of primal stomp that could indeed have been recorded at the height of the original rock’n’roll boom… but certainly had no business being made when it was.

Hunt it down, turn it up and rewrite your own personal history of the music. Read the book while the record does strange things to your mind. There was Bill Haley, there was Ike Turner, there was Dave Bartholomew, there was whoever else you want to credit with birthing the music we still know and love. But before them all, there was Tommy Histon.

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