The Jazz Butcher • The Violent Years [4CD Box Set]

jazz butcher the violent yearsSecond in a series of archival releases culling THE JAZZ BUTCHER’s albums together, The Violent Years delves into the first half of the group’s tenure at Creation Records, from 1988 to 1991. As with The Wasted Years, this one is a 4CD book-bound set, and includes longplayers Fishcotheque, Big Planet Scarey Planet, Cult of the Basement and Condition Blue.

By the time The Jazz Butcher’s residency at Glass Records came to an end, the band had turned in Distressed Gentlefolk, their most polished elpee to date. After realizing that his contract was up – and he had basically disbanded the band – Butchie signed to the hot Creation Records and decided to do an album with more of the indie sound of the early records. He didn’t quite achieve that. 1988’s Fishcotheque came off as an almost identical record, production-wise, to Gentlefolk. As for the songs, yes, Pat Fish had written some real barn-burners, like “Looking for Lot 49,” “Next Move Sideways” and “Chickentown,” the type which were sorely missing from the previous outing. But others, like “Get It Wrong” and “Susie,” were kinder and gentler, despite a new group of musicians. He achieved a bit more of the distress he was looking for on the following year’s Big Planet Scarey Planet, at least in sound, but the songs themselves were mostly of the same two veins – either kinda rockin’ (“Burglar of Love”) or kinda personal (“The Good Ones”). What did stand out, though, were new things like “Do the Bubonic Plague,” a stab at creating a new dance craze (which was a thing back in the day!) with all kinds of dialog samples and a pretty funky rock groove, and “The Word I Was Looking For,” which, though of the fastest tempo on the record, is one of the smoothest tunes on the release. Fishcotheque and Big Planet delivered both the clever/humorous wordplay and the beat group sound we’d come to expect from anything attributed to any group with the words Jazz and Butcher in its name. Cut from the same cloth, then, these first two Creation releases were indicative of a band that really needed to shake things up.

And that happened on 1990’s Cult of the Basement, which figuratively and literally closed the door on the first era of The Jazz Butcher. Opening with the sound of an actual door shutting, the album ushers in a new sound drenched in reverb and perhaps a bit of disgust, tempered by Fish’s usual verve with words. “The Basement” has a sinister, spy-theme vibe motif that expanded upon a few times on the album, and is followed by the should’ve been hit single, “She’s on Drugs,” a tune that epitomizes the man/band’s ability to house his wry observations about the current pop scene in a spot-on corker of a song. Other JB classics are “Pineapple Tuesday” and my favorite, “Mr. Odd,” both slow/medium tempo songs, the latter somehow encapsulating just what makes The Jazz Butcher one of my favorite bands from the ’80s/’90s. At that time I not only played their records as much as I could get away with on my college radio show (KCMU birthed many a Pacific Northwest JB fan), but also reviewed the album in local music magazine, The Rocket. [Click here for a reprint of that review.] Further standout tunes on Basement include “Girl Go,” “Turtle Bait” and “Panic in Room 109,” which takes the aforementioned spy theme idea and cloaks it in a complete song of its own. I still can’t get enough of Cult of the Basement, even nearly thirty years later.

Condition Blue, from 1991, is a further expansion of what Fish & Co. created in the Basement. This time the songs are built more around grooves, and the musicians let these grooves go until conclusion (instead of fading them out). That concept doesn’t always work out well, but it does here. My faves on Blue are “Shirley Maclaine,” “She’s a Yo-Yo,” “Our Friends the Filth,” and the super groovy “Harlan” and “Racheland.” The guitars and vocals are pushed into maximum reverberation, creating more of that badass atmosphere that The Jazz Butcher had patented a couple of years earlier.

From here, The Jazz Butcher story goes kinda wonky – and I’m guessing that it will be told in a further box set. However, I must iterate here that a collection of the JB’s singles and B-sides would be a welcome addition to the two anthologies we’ve been treated to so far. Call it Wasted Violence, or Violent Waste, or whatever you want. As I’ve said before, there are a solid three or four CDs worth of Jazz Butchery that deserve to be preserved before releasing things in a physical format becomes a thing of the past.

4.75/5 (Fire Records FIRECD470, 2018)

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The Jazz Butcher • Cult of the Basement [CD, LP]

[Originally published in The Rocket, Seattle, September 1990]

Once again, Pat Fish proves he’s the penultimate modern pop eclectic. Continuing from where last year’s [1989] overlooked but outstanding Big Planet Scarey Planet left off, Cult of the Basement is THE JAZZ BUTCHER’s latest go-round and it’s one hell of a ride.

Cult opens with the spy-themey “The Basement,” a recurring theme at that. Then, with a curt “and you can dance” a la Madonna, Butchy delivers “She’s On Drugs,” which may or mayn’t be about America’s bullet-braed diva. Lest we believe the Jazz Butcher’s always got something wacky up his sleeve, there’s “Girl Go,” released earlier this year [1990] as a single (in the UK) and a quintessential take on JB’s patented guitar-heavy reverb ballads. “Pineapple Tuesday” is in the same mode, but hardly a copy.

As a guitarist he’s great, as a singer, supreme. But first and foremost, Fish is a songwriter second to none. And if the world were a fair place, he and his band would be everywhere in 1990 except the basement.

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The Hot Rats • Turn Ons [CD, LP]

 [Originally published 2/11/2010 on Skratchdisc]

Gaz and Danny from Supergrass, THE HOT RATS’ Turn Ons is an album full of cover versions. Perhaps taking the idea from David Bowie’s 1974 Pinups album, or even more recently any number of other all-covers albums, the two-man band and producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Paul McCartney) put together a dozen or so songs for the occasion, and twelve of them appear here.

The festivities get started with a shot at Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It” and The Kinks’ “Big Sky.” Things lag a bit on The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship” and then you get to the first single, “Fight for Your Right,” which sounds nothing like the Beastie Boys’ original. In fact, the Rats do a great job of completely changing it… for the better, really, since that song—so closely associated with the silly video that accompanied it—is ultimately a childish, bombastic thing. (And I’m not saying I don’t like it!) Stabs at Roxy Music, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, The Cure, and Bowie himself follow, and then comes “EMI,” which is great because, as you know, the Sex Pistols cut that song as a swipe at the first label that signed and then dropped them. And it makes you wonder, does Supergrass still have a contract with EMI, whose Parlophone label they have been on since 1995? (The band did this song on the Craig Ferguson late night show with Pistol Steve Jones—look it up on YouTube!) Well, anyway, the disc ends with a very nice, melancholy version of Squeeze’s “Up the Junction,” with an arrangement that really does justice to Difford & Tilbrook’s sad story-wrapped-in-a-happy-melody that was a chart topper in the UK in ’79.

All in all, a pretty great covers album. Some songs are awfully close to the originals, some aren’t, and some are in between. They all sound like The Hot Rats, though, a crunchy, sorta lo-fi vibe quite different from Gaz & Danny’s other band’s sound, so you’re not gonna confuse these versions with the others when they come up randomly on your iPod. My only qualm? They didn’t include the Rats’ version of “Drive My Car” on the album, even though there’s a video for it. Where can a Supergrass/Hot Rats fan get this, I wonder? I hope it’ll be on a single or something…
3/5 (Fat Possum [US], G&D Recordings [UK])

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Elvis Costello & The Attractions • Live at Hollywood High [CD]

 [Originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]

The second in EC’s live reissue series, and the one that most of his hardcore fans have been waiting for. Live at Hollywood High is the complete 1978 concert recorded at the venerable high school, just after ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS’ first album, This Year’s Model, was released and before Armed Forces was even recorded. Very nice sound quality here (much better than Live at the El Mocambo), and puts the three songs that were first issued on the free vinyl single into context. Of course, as these things go, if you bought the most recent reissue of Armed Forces then you already have half of this concert, but for a little over ten bucks, it’s definitely nice to have the complete show.
5/5 (Hip-O Records)

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XTC • Black Sea (The Surround Sound Series) [BD/CD]

Late Christmas gift or early birthday present to myself? Who cares. It finally arrived, just seven weeks after they shipped it from the UK… and I’ve been listening to it practically non-stop ever since. XTC’s Black Sea is the 1980 album by these British heroes of the new wave, and it was an amazing slab of wax: muscular power pop, thinking man’s rock, whatever you wanted to call it, it was an album like no other in their catalogue, past or present.

This November 2017 reissue of Black Sea is the latest in a series of surround sound spectaculars released by XTC’s Andy Partridge’s Ape House label. With new 5.1 and stereo mixes of the album by celebrated remixer Steven Wilson (he’d already done the same thing to Drums and Wires, Skylarking, Oranges & Lemons and Nonsuch), along with a big ol’ bucket of bonus tracks (single mixes, soundtrack tunes, demos, instrumentals), this Blu-ray/CD set is a big deal for us XTC fans. Wilson’s new mixes add additional in your face sonics to what was already a big, brash production by Steve Lillywhite (with Hugh Padgham), at least in their stereo guise. [Once again, like with last year’s Skylarking, my surround system’s not set up so I can’t speak for the 5.1 mixes.] I’m sure Wilson’s lost none of his understanding of what makes a good production or mix, so the surround mixes are likely to be just as mesmerizing. And when I say that, I mean, songs like “No Language in Our Lungs” and “Travels in Nihilon,” both extended grooves that build and build, stand out as so much better than they did in 1980. Perhaps that’s a bit of my maturity speaking; I was naturally drawn to singles “Respectable Street,” “Generals and Majors,” “Towers of London” and “Sgt. Rock” as a young man. Those songs still excite me — I never get tired of ’em! — but the side enders “Language” and “Travels” are pure pummel now, with both their lyrics and their gargantuan grooves coming through loud and clear!

What is also crystal is that Black Sea stands as the first great XTC album, bridging the gap between their own youthful material and the mature stuff that followed: English Settlement, Skylarking, etc. It spawned four great singles (noted above), was presented in a nice green bag (my US copy pictured at right), and showcased two songwriters (Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding) who could write with equal amounts of humor and politically savvy satire. Whether it’s the comic book hero/mentor in “Sgt. Rock,” the imagined nostalgia for simpler, more grateful times (“Towers of London”), or the silly warmongering of “Generals and Majors,” Partridge and Moulding, with XTC guitarist Dave Gregory and drummer Terry Chambers, crafted an album that at the time could’ve been considered New Wave’s Sgt. Pepper. That is, until 1986 when they gave us the magnificent Skylarking.

For the price (less than $30 USD), this combo Blu-ray/CD package is an excellent presentation of XTC’s fourth album. Sure, they could go all 12″x12″ and give us a deluxe book, super lengthy liner notes, a vinyl pressing and more – and charge sixty or seventy bucks for it – but you get so much Black Sea in this lil’ treasure chest (including some fun videos), I can find no fault here.  I’m sure we’ll get a nice vinyl reissue one of these days [c’mon, Andy, you know you should!], so for now this high value XTC package is a superb way to wade into Black Sea.

5/5 (Ape House APEBD104, 2017)

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Captain Sensible • Women And Captains First, The Power of Love [CD]

[Originally published 1/18/2010 on Skratchdisc]

FINALLY two of the greatest albums that mix rock and “synth pop” in a way that dumbs down neither have been issued on CD. CAPTAIN SENSIBLE, sometime guitarist for my favorite band of all time, The Damned, put these two out in the early ’80s, on the heels of his surprise hit “Happy Talk” (yes, from South Pacific!), as he took his turn at becoming a pop star. He had more than his 15 minutes, at least in Britain, and of course he’s been back with his punk chums for longer than a decade now, but these A&M elpees were never put out on CD until the 2000s, first as limited edition Japanese issues (with uncharacteristically mediocre mastering), and now these superb versions on Cherry Red. Women And Captains First came out in 1982 and featured not only the aforementioned hit, but the further single “Croydon” (a sublime tune about his childhood and growing up “cleaning toilets”), “Brenda,” and my personal fave, “Wot!” (which also charted). Tony Mansfield gets the producer credit for both albums, and on the first one especially he really did a fantastic job… great pop songs bolstered by production and arrangements that really bring out the uniqueness of Captain’s take on rock ’n’ roll. The Power of Love followed in 1984 with real great singles “Stop the World” and “I’m a Spider,” though the hits kinda trailed off. Whatever… this was another good one, though not quite as.

Cap’n went on to do more solo stuff, and eventually rejoined The Damned after former drummer Rat Scabies departed, and the band returned to former glories with 2001’s Grave Disorder. Sensible has slowed down on the release front, but hell, he did run for political office in the Blah! Party he formed in the UK, and he has been an active campaigner for animal rights and a lot more. These two slabs of early ’80s pop are proof that not everything that had a synth back then sucked.
5/5 (Women And Captains First), 3/5 (The Power of Love)
(Cherry Red CDMRED 408, 409)

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Los Straitjackets • Yuletide Beat [LP]

[Review originally published 12/10/2009 on Skratchdisc]

A limited edition 10″ vinyl release, Yuletide Beat is LOS STRAITJACKETS’ second holiday hootenanny, and a worthy companion to ’Tis The Season… [which was reissued last year (2016) on red vinyl – ed.]. Sticking closely to the template The Ventures established many decades ago of doing Christmas instrumentals wrapped in popular rock ’n’ roll arrangements, the ’Jackets nail ten (one per inch) instros down perfectly. This is my favorite kinda music for this time of the year: you get the Christmas tunes, alright, but not the boring, stodgy arrangements we used to have to hear every year on records by Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. Here you get guitars, pounding drums, and even wailin’ sax doing it the way it oughta be done.

4/5 (YepRoc/Spinout YEP SPIN 2813; available as download at YepRoc Records)
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Electric Light Orchestra • Out of the Blue [40th Anniversary Picture Disc]

Another anniversary, another reissue. Yet, ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA’s Out of the Blue is truly deserving of a celebration. The double album was first released in October 1977, amid all the hype about punk rock and the desecration of our beloved rock ’n’ roll. Forty years later the prophecy that punk would destroy all stands unfulfilled; rock ’n’ roll carries on as “classic” music, mostly of a bygone era, via countless repackages of the best it had to offer.

This here double picture disc of Out of the Blue is truly something to look at (I’m going by the photos I’ve seen), although it can’t be quite as awesome as the original issue. That was a 2LP album in a gatefold cover with printed inner sleeves, a mini poster of the band and – wait for it! – a cut-out space station/rocket ship just like the one on the record jacket! And YES, I did assemble mine as a 14 year old and hung the poster, too. Today’s picture disc release comes with none of those extras, just Jeff Lynne’s masterpiece carved into the grooves of records that can’t possibly show all the magic that is Blue. I mean, picture discs are naturally pressed with shallower grooves to accommodate the picture inside, thus making for a quieter and (likely) less expansive sound. The original pressing, as well as some of the many reissues over the last four decades, is really the one to have.

With five singles hitting the charts, Blue was ELO’s biggest bang, eventually selling some 10 million copies worldwide. You know many of them: “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and the nowadays ubiquitous (thanks to its inclusion in dozens of movies) “Mr. Blue Sky.” The band’s sound had evolved to a unique hybrid of rock, classical and pop. What started out as a great idea (their classicalized cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” was among their early singles, along with the epic “10538 Overture”) hit its zenith with this sprawling double album, which even included a side-long Concerto for a Rainy Day. Judging by the DVD of one of this era’s shows, the ELO of ’77 must have been something to see and hear in person.

Heavy on harmonies, stacked in layers thanks to 24-track recording and Jeff Lynne’s amazing ability to take melodies and turn them into major statements, Out of the Blue was like The Beatles smashed into The Beach Boys and The Everly Brothers while Phil Spector got the entire shebang on tape. My guess is Lynne was as focused on dense, dynamic arrangements as Brian Wilson was before him, though I don’t expect Jeff was wearing a fireman’s helmet in the booth… But I’ll bet it was really hot in there!

As for the strings, well, the Electric Light Orchestra at this point – lavish, grand – was six or seven band members plus the extra violins, cellos and what have you that accompanied them on record and on stage. Blue is ELO at its most magnificent. From this peak there was nowhere higher for Lynne & Co. to go, and so on the next LP, Discovery (cynically also known as Disco Very), the band shed most of the genuine strings and accomplished its orchestral manoeuvres mainly via synthesizers. It doesn’t matter that ELO’s biggest hit in America was “Don’t Let Me Down” (Bruuuuuuuuce!); Out of the Blue was the album that finally captured what was in the boss’s head and displayed it like a gigantic billboard for all to see. Hey you with the pretty face, welcome to the human race!

In 2007 a deluxe anniversary CD came out in a limited edition book-bound cover with the cutout space station (albeit in much smaller form) and 24-page booklet; that version and the standard jewelcase version included bonus tracks and new mastering. Sadly, one of the songs had a noticeable dropout thanks to the age of the stereo master tape and so this reissue loses a point. A vinyl reissue on Simply Vinyl was also issued (in 1999) and it suffered from over the top digital mastering (not usually a plus for vinyl reissues), and since then it had also been issued properly via Epic/Legacy (on clear vinyl, 2015). I’m not sure whether these vinyl versions – or the picture disc set that gave me reason to write this review now – include the aforementioned dropout, which is considerable but not a deal breaker since this album is such an essential piece of the ELO (and rock ’n’ roll in general) discography. You should give them a shot if they’re easily available. Otherwise, I’d try and hunt down an original on Jet/United Artists or even the slightly later Jet/CBS version (USA), or maybe even a UK import on Jet/UA. Hell, whatever version you get, Out of the Blue is something you must own.

5/5 (Epic 8898545616S1, 2017)

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The Who • Live at Leeds (40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set) [CD]

[Review originally published 12/2/2010 on Skratchdisc]

It finally came the other day! A little over forty years after the concert was recorded at a “uni” in Leeds, England, THE WHO’s legendary Live at Leeds is still hailed as one of the best live albums ever. Of course, when they finally put it out with the entire concert included (with the entire Tommy rock opera, even), it made it even greater. Now, they’ve released it in a be-all end-all edition that includes the double CD aforementioned, the original 6-song LP (on 180 gram vinyl), a 7″ replica of the original UK (or is it German) single of “Summertime Blues” b/w “Heaven and Hell” (the latter of which was not on the original album), a hardcover 60-page book, and a vial of Keith Moon’s sweat (that version already sold out).

The other big deal about this version of Live at Leeds is they released it with the entire concert from the next night, Live at Hull. Yes, I know… the title “Live at Leeds” is so iconic that “Live at Hull” sounds like a Rutles joke (and it is, sorta, since they claim that Dirk McQuickly put out a solo record called “(When You Find the Girl of Your Dreams in the Arms of) Some Scotsmen from Hull”). It’s a great show, almost as good as Leeds, and they had to really do some work to make the first handful of songs presentable. Apparently, John Entwistle’s bass was not recorded for the first five or six songs, and that’s why the show was originally shelved. (They actually only listened to the first song or two at the time and decided the whole tape was bass-less so they passed on it.) But the shit they can do nowadays with a computer and a little gumption! keith moonThey actually “flew in” the bass from the Leeds show and digitally manipulated it to fit the performance at Hull. Man, I love technology! Sure, the show is pretty identical to its way more popular brother, but it just goes to show that to have seen The Who in ’69-’70 must have been like witnessing godhead incarnate. Of course, I couldn’t have appreciated it as well at the age of seven as I can now, or even when I first really heard the original album, probably 1980 or so, but listening to this amazingly awesome concert almost erases the memory of seeing them Moon-less at the Kingdome in 1982 (which is memorable primarily because it was the only time I got to see The Clash).

Now, you don’t get all the little inserts that came with the original LP issue, though they are reproduced in the book, but you do get a pretty cool poster of Pete Townshend doing his windmill routine, and as I said, early pre-orderers do get a sample of Moon’s sweat, which must have been prodigious considering how crazily-yet-brilliantly he plays during these concerts. Personally, I was hoping for a locke of Roger Daltrey’s hair, but I guess the sweat will have to do. BTW, as great as I think The Who were, I still think “Happy Jack” is a pretty dumb song, despite the great music.

6/5 (Polydor/Universal)

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Cheap Trick • Christmas Christmas [CD, LP]

Hard to believe I’ve been writing this blog for this long and not yet touched on CHEAP TRICK! I’ve been a fan since At Budokan first filled the streets of my neighborhood with their guitar soaked rock ’n’ roll and – barring a decade or so when they seemed to lose their way – been along for the ride ever since.

This year The Trick treats us to Christmas Christmas, their first all-holiday release and a welcome gift. Packed with a dozen Yuletide tunes, it includes their takes on a bunch of classic Christmas rock. Naturally they cover Roy Wood & Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day,” giving it the customary crunch that has accompanied their previous killer covers of Wood’s material (“California Man,” “Brontosaurus”). Also tackled with aplomb are The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” It’s not surprising these ones made it to the album, as they’re exactly what you’d expect Cheap Trick to do. A couple that are surprising – and both damn good – are the Ramones’ “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” and Nilsson’s “Remember Christmas,” two songs that couldn’t be much more different from each other and yet fit very nicely on Christmas Christmas. It’s great to see Cheap Trick stretch out a bit and cover something as punk rock as the Ramones or as beautiful as the Nilsson cut. Robin Zander shows his range as a rock singer on these two, especially the latter, where he uses restraint from going overboard and still nails it. I also like some of the arrangement touches, recalling Cheap Trick’s late ’70s records, such as the sinister middle bit in the Slade cover (reminiscent of the guy who invades your brain in the middle of “Dream Police”) or the over-the-top bridge they add to “Run Rudolph Run.” That there’s a heaping helping of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” is both expected and done quite well.

As Christmas albums go, this one’s absolutely critical for the Cheap Trick fan. Sure, you’ve heard some of these songs hundreds of times over the years, but never the way they’re done here. And though Bun E. Carlos is missed, Daxx Nielsen finally fits in comfortably on the drum throne. Christmas Christmas is filled with Cheap Trick cheer and whether you grab the Record Store Day vinyl or the CD, this one will be a platter you regularly revisit every December.

4/5 (Big Machine BMRCT0275A, 2017)

 

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