Monthly Archives: February 2017

Pugwash • Almond Tea [LP], Almanac [LP]

pugwash-almondtea_350pxFirst off, get over to Sugarbush Records right now and order a copy of each of these before they run out. I’ll wait for ya. Okay, now that you’re back: PUGWASH is the best Irish band since The Undertones and one of the best bands of the last two decades, period. Their first two albums, 1999’s Almond Tea and 2002’s Almanac, have been reissued in very limited editions for the first time on (colored) vinyl and they’re stunning! If you haven’t heard of Thomas Walsh’s band it’s not surprising – Pugwash is as obscure here in the States as a hot dog is in Ireland. And it’s hard to understand why, in this Internet/Wikipedia/“Google it!” age, that a cursory search of “power pop,” “Irish rock bands,” or “those guys with the big-hearted, big guy who writes the catchiest tunes this side of 1960s Liverpool” doesn’t serve up the name Pugwash. The band, fronted by Walsh and including his current, more-than-able mates Tosh Flood, Shaun McGee and Joe Fitzgerald, has had a career-spanning “best of” (A Rose in a Garden of Weeds: A Preamble Through the History of Pugwash, 2014) and a further CD released here in the States in recent years, and a new 2017 release on the way. (You can support that release on Kickstarter here.) But this is where it all started.

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Almond Tea in “mint tea green” and Almanac in orange.

Almond Tea (”as served by Pugwash”) was the band’s debut release, and one of those albums that comes out of nowhere (or in this case, Dublin) with a sound that is at once of its time and of no time. Put out by now defunct Vélo Records, it was Walsh’s first fully realized project after years of making his own demos in a shed out back. This time he and his mates go all out. Their songs sometimes recall ’60s greats like The Beatles, The Kinks and The Beach Boys, plus later heroes ELO and XTC, but none of them are out and out copies. “The Finer Things in Life” (pronounced “tings” in Walsh’s particular Irish accent), a tender yet semi-rockin’ love song, recalls John Lennon with its Rubber Soul meets Double Fantasy melancholy vibe. Further songs are in a more power pop place, like “Two Wrongs” and “Missing the Point.” Throughout Almond Tea you hear references to all kinds of records in your collection.

pugwash-almanac_350pxWalsh’s talent to come up with canny concoctions continues on Almanac, Pugwash’s sophomore release (also originally released by Vélo). More upbeat than its predecessor, the band’s second LP features guitar gems like “Monorail,” “Keep Movin’ On” and “Apples,” among a harvest of other treats straight out of The Big Book of Psychedelic Psunshine Pop. Thomas’s voice is a sonorous one, equal parts nasal and not; his range and note-hitting precision is something lacking in most of today’s lead singers. There’s not a hint of gimmicky affect or studio trickery anywhere. The other band members’ voices help carry Walsh’s to a place that is seldom seen or heard anymore.

Thanks to the folks at Sugarbush Records these early Pugwash albums are available on beautiful, 180 gram colored vinyl LPs. In your choice of two colors each, they are limited to 250 copies per color and rumor is this breed is just about extinct. Considering the original CDs are also an endangered species (they fetch big bucks on Ebay), you might just want to hop to it.

(Also of note: Sugarbush has many fine, limited edition releases available, including some by Seattle psych-pop greats Green Pajamas. Finally, I reviewed Pugwash’s 2015 release, Play This Intimately, right here.)

3.5/5, 4/5 (Almond Tea, Sugarbush SB021; Almanac, Sugarbush SB028)

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John Lennon • Rock ’N’ Roll [album] vs. Paul McCartney • СНОВА Б СССР [album]

lennon-rocknroll_400pxOr Battle of The Beatles Heavyweights! Right about now in 1975, former Beatle JOHN LENNON released an album of Rock ’N’ Roll oldies – and it was to be his last for over five years. At the time the critics weren’t exactly singing the praises of it or their hero’s seeming lack of new songs. In fact, they were fairly forthright about it. It doesn’t really matter anymore, though, as today Rock ’N’ Roll stands as the man’s unique tribute to the music that inspired him, eventually to form his own band and then change the face of popular music forever.

PAUL McCARTNEY, on the other hand, was then on a roll with his band Wings. By 1987, though, Lennon’s esteemed Beatles bandmate was having a rough time of it. The hits had slowed considerably and, in an attempt to recharge his psyche, Macca revisited his rockin’ roots and did a covers album of his own, Choba Б CCCP. It was initially only available in Russia (hence the title: Back in the USSR). The record was imported and bootlegged heavily, and after McCartney issued a few of the songs as B-sides to a 1987 single, “Once Upon a Long Ago” (not released in the US), he eventually relented and released an extended version of the album on CD for all the world to hear.

mccartney-chobabcccp_400pxLennon and McCartney, though once united in rhyme in The Beatles, chose different songs for their respective tributes. They both relied heavily on the big names of ’50s rock: Fats Domino (“Ain’t That a Shame” was the only song covered by both, with McCartney also doing Fats’ “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday” and “I’m in Love Again”), Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. The albums were recorded over ten years apart, with different bands and under different circumstances (by ’87 Lennon had been dead for seven years, which must have weighed heavily on McCartney’s mind as he went about making his record). So pitting the two records against each other isn’t really a fair fight. But since I’m the referee in this ring, I’ve chosen to go for it anyway and render my decision. No punching below the belt, no name calling, gentlemen, let’s have a fair fight and may the best man win!

lennon-mccartney-hamburg_400pxLennon’s LP, Rock ’N’ Roll, is a very thick-sounding record. Replete with not only guitar and keyboards but a horn section, its production – by Lennon and “Wall Of Sound” originator Phil Spector – is multi-layered and at times suffers from too-much-happening-all-at-once. Yet the arrangements are quite spectacular, sometimes unique (the slow reggaefied rhythm of “You Can’t Catch Me,” for instance), and delivered with commitment. When John sings “Stand by Me” you can feel the song’s import on his life. The album’s been reissued many times. I highly recommend the 2010 vinyl, remastered from 24/96 digital files (purportedly taken directly from the analog master) but very detailed and with no noticable digital ick. For a different take on the material, find the 2005 CD – it was remixed at the time and de-clutters some of the arrangements to give you a different, maybe even better idea of just what was going on at Record Plant East Studios (“everybody here says ‘hi’”) all those years ago.

As for Choba Б CCCP, McCartney’s take on some of his favorite rock ’n’ roll classics, it’s also a winner. (I know, I know: There are no ties allowed. Wait for it.) Sparse compared to Lennon’s, these arrangements pretty much stick to your standard guitar/piano/bass/drums variety, making for a more immediate feel. Yes, the snare’s a bit overbearing (this was the mid ’80s, after all) and the guitar sometimes has a slightly over-processed tone, but this album sounds no more “Eighties” than Lennon’s does “Seventies.” McCartney, too, sounds like he means it when he’s singing Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up” or Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock,” a song fabled in Beatles lore as the one he impressed Lennon with in 1957 or so when the two boys met and cemented their connection to each other forever. Though McCartney’s covers album was second in release (and really, Ringo Starr did an album of covers in 1970! – not a rock ’n’ roll outing), it’s hard to say which one is first in terms of greatness. But because there are no ties in pugilism – and because America loves a winner – I gotta go with Lennon. By a hair. Yes, those who know me know that McCartney is my man, but Lennon ain’t no slouch either. “But Marsh,” you might say, “McCartney’s put out a lot of crap as a solo artist.” And I would reply with, “Had Lennon kept releasing records for another thirty plus years, he might have put out a similar number of stinkers himself.” Besides: YOU WON. Let it be.

4.5/5 (Lennon, Parlophone/Apple); 4/5 (McCartney, Capitol)

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Blur • Blur [LP]

blur-blur_400pxBritpop heavyweights BLUR landed their first US biggie in 1997 with the eponymous Blur. Twenty years ago this week – another time, another place, at least for me – it was released as the followup to their celebrated (and then rescinded) The Great Escape, the last of their “Life” trilogy (which also included Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife). Blur was a departure, for gone were the new wavey arrangements,  the mellotrony goodness and the generally upbeat sound that defined their oeuvre. Here the band were primed and ready to shoot for bear with super distorted guitars, lo-fi production values and an even more overt down vibe. (Not counting “M.O.R.,” which feels at least slightly hopeful.)

The thing that was unexpected to many of us Yanks was how Blur had gone grunge. I’m not talking as grunge as Pearl Jam or even Nirvana, but after their last three albums, which were like finger flicks to the cheek, this one was a punch in the face. The underlying tunes were still quintessentially Blur, sure, but you’d have to be deaf to not hear the difference. Of course, twenty years later, the change feels more cosmetic and not as jarring as it did in ’97. Blur welcomed the band’s newfound American fan base thanks to the ubiquitous “Song 2” (“Woo hoo!”), whose video was played constantly and audio was everywhere there wasn’t a TV monitor. They were, indeed, looking for America (“with its kooky knives and suicides,” as they sang in “Look Inside America”) and they found it. Albarn, Coxon, James & Rowntree found the Promised Land, alright, warts ’n’ all.

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So, today I have a 2LP pressing of Blur from 2012 (180 gram, natch) that almost sounds too pristine considering this was Blur’s big fuck you and good night! to the Britpop sound they helped define. I almost think it would’ve served the material better if they’d crammed all 57 minutes onto one record. Bring out less of the snap and more of the crackle! Yet, there’s no denying that it’s an era-capturing album, among the handful of releases that make Blur an important part of my music collection.

4/5 (Food/Parlophone FOODLPX19; 2012 reissue)

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XTC • English Settlement [2LP]

xtc-englishsettlement_400pxHere’s another great album anniversary for me to go on about: English Settlement, the 1982 2LP set from XTC, turned 35 this week, and it’s yet another release with a distinguished place in my collection.

By the time the celebrated UK “new wave” band released this, their fifth album, XTC had had a few appearances on Top of the Pops under their belts, for songs like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Statue of Liberty,” and would do so a few more times over the next decade or so. Their principal songwriter, Andy Partridge, turned in some of his best songs for Settlement, as did bass player Colin Moulding. And yet, this album’s release – or at least the tour supporting it – was a huge missed opportunity that took the band years to recover from. That’s because Partridge finally succumbed to the stage fright that had been his nemesis since the band started, just as the band had begun a US tour that quite possibly would have “broke” them here. Their single, “Senses Working Overtime,” was topping college radio charts everywhere and its video was getting saturation play on MTV (which had only debuted in August ’81). The tour was cancelled after only a handful of shows (I’m still bummed because I had planned to attend their Seattle stop); who knows how the exposure would have helped them in America? It took XTC another four years to achieve similar visibility here (with the song “Dear God” from their 1986 album Skylarking). Regardless, today, English Settlement stands as a highwater mark for XTC.

The double album, as released in the UK, was a 15-song, 2LP affair that contained some of XTC’s best-known and best loved songs, such as “Senses,” “No Thugs in Our House” and “Knuckle Down” from Partridge, and “Ball and Chain,” “Runaways” and my new favorite “Fly on the Wall” from Moulding. As a double LP English Settlement is a staggeringly rich album, moving slightly away from the power-poppy, two guitars/bass/drums sound they’d established on Drums and Wires and Black Sea (1979 and 1980) to an earthy yet ballsy new place. This time, Partridge and guitarist Dave Gregory brought their electric 12-string and acoustic guitars, while Moulding frequently used a fretless bass to add to his sonic palette. Luckily, there was no let-up in Terry Chambers’ drumming and the album still had the all important anchor necessary to keep the songs within xtc_es-duotone_340pxthe band’s established wheelhouse. Sadly, when issued here in the US by Epic, the album was whittled down to a single LP and that really changed its feel. Yes, the “hit” singles were still there – “Senses,” “Ball and Chain” and “Thugs” were all released as 45s in England – but the flow was interrupted. You wouldn’t have known this if you were a casual XTC fan, but after I had devoured Black Sea the year before, I read up on these guys! I knew, according to Trouser Press or NY Rocker or maybe it was Creem, that the UK version was a double album, and that’s the one I wanted. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be until the late ’80s when, after Skylarking had become a sensation, the band’s US label, Geffen (now distributing Virgin releases here) reissued the album in its original 2LP configuration. None of this matters now, because these days you have your choice of either full-length 2LP or single CD when buying it new.

Last year, Andy Partridge’s Ape House Records reissued English Settlement in a super deluxe 2LP box set (along with a similar treatment to Skylarking), and it’s epic. (Pun intended.) Not only do you get a real quiet, 180 gram 2LP pressing of the album, you get a full-color, 12″x12″ booklet and inserts detailing the making of the record, foibles with their label, and remembrances about the instrumentation and the way the band came to the songs’ arrangements. The mastering (by John Dent at Loud) is pretty nice and detailed, but I must say: it isn’t as immediate (or as loud, actually) as the original Virgin (UK) issue. Finally scoring a super clean copy of that last year, I was amazed at how much better it sounds than the 2016 Ape House vinyl or the most recent Virgin (UK)/Caroline (US) CD master from the early 2000s, let alone the Geffen vinyl. Though my newly treasured 1982 copy smells a bit musty, it kicks ass on the more recent issues. You know what my advice is? Knuckle down and find an original Virgin UK copy.

4/5 (Virgin V2223, 1982; Ape House APELPD105, 2016)

I reviewed a book about Andy Partridge’s songs, Complicated Game; see it here.

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Fleetwood Mac • Rumours [LP]

fleetwoodmac-rumours-cvr_400pxYikes! 40 years ago this week one of rock’s undisputed greatest albums of all time was unleashed on the world. FLEETWOOD MAC‘s Rumours would go on to sell some 45 million copies globally and permanently chisel the band’s name into the figurative stone tablet of rock’s quintessential records.

So much has been written about the band and this seminal album that it’s hard to come up with anything about them that hasn’t already been said. But I have so many memories that are tied up in the band/album that I had to list them for myself just to pick a few poignant ones. I started my first band in 1977 with my pals Mike and Jerry in Cypress, California (Orange County for those keeping score at home). The three of us tried our best to learn songs we liked (“Smoke on the Water,” I believe, was first – and it was all riff and nothing else!) The band soldiered on, and by the time Jerry moved we had added two girl singers, Sharlyn and Dee Dee, and once Mitch replaced Jerry we were 3 guys + 2 girls = teenage Fleetwood Mac. I don’t remember if that was a conscious idea or whether it just happened that way, but indeed it was very handy. How better to reproduce our own versions of “Dreams” and “Gold Dust Woman”? We had the exact same makeup, because Sharlyn sang and played piano and Dee Dee sang and played guitar. I’m not trying to say we were able to even partially capture what the real Mac was, but we at least had the parts. So there’s that.

fleetwoodmac-band2_400pxLater that year my dad asked me to play a song on the guitar for my great uncle Sam (that was his name, I kid you not). I didn’t know what to play – what guy his age would know any of the songs I could possibly come up with? I didn’t think he’d know “Rocky Raccoon” or “A Horse with No Name,” so after wracking my brain, I read the lyrics to Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop,” one of the tunes she sings on Rumours with heavy assistance from Lindsey Buckingham. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow / Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here / It’ll be better than before / Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.” Oh lord. The thought didn’t dawn on me then, but much later: Was I telling my uncle Sam to just let go? Well, I don’t know how lucid he was at the time (I remember he was in hospice and I played for him sitting in a chair near his bed), but he might have heard it that way. I was just a kid, thought it was a pleasant sounding song, and it was pretty easy to learn. (It helped having the songbook with all the chords!)

Like thousands of kids my age I had photos of the band plastered on my bedroom walls (along with Wings, ELO and Linda Ronstadt), favoring those that had Stevie Nicks in them. Rumours became one of those albums that I can quote without even thinking about it. Despite hearing most of its songs literally thousands of times, it’s an album that I never get tired of.

fleetwoodmac-band3_375pxA year or so ago, while watching the Classic Albums DVD on the making of Rumours with my wife Sarah, I had a weirdly emotional moment. They were discussing how they recorded Christine McVie playing the piano part for “Songbird” in an auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. At the time I was coming to a reckoning about some personal issues of mine that were making my relationship with my wife difficult. Laying on the couch with my head in her lap, I began crying. Big boys don’t cry. But there I was, 50-something, bawling in Sarah’s lap. Something about that beautiful song. “I feel that when I’m with you, it’s alright… And I love you, I love you, I love you like never before.” I think Christine was trying to tell me something. Listen to me: don’t mess this up. She is your songbird! And Good Lord. The very moment I’m writing this the freaking sun comes out after raining hard all morning. It turns out that Christine, like the songbirds of which she wrote, knew the score.

These days when I put on Rumours I listen to a pressing of the album that was done at 45rpm on two records. It’s an audiophile edition that came out in 2009, pressed on 180-gram vinyl and designed to bring out more of the nuances in the music that can get lost in lesser, shoddy pressings. And, indeed, you get more of the shimmer of the voices, more of the crystalline timbre of Buckingham’s underrated guitar playing and even more of John McVie’s killer bass lines and Mick Fleetwood’s kick ’n’ snare than on other editions. If you can find this pressing, and you’re not worn out by the continued ubiquity of this record, you should get a copy. That’s not to say that the 2CD reissue and the later box set aren’t worthy of your attention, as they both have many of the demo and live versions of the songs that give you a better idea of what it took to bring this baby to life and what it sounds like live. You can go your own way – pick the version that works best for you. All I know is, in one form or another, for me Rumours is going to be there until the end.

5/5 (Reprise 9362-49793-4; originally issued 1977, this version 2009)

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The Move • Magnetic Waves of Sound: The Best of The Move [CD+DVD]

move-magneticMagnetic Waves of Sound: The Best of The Move gets its name from a line in the immortal song, “I Can Hear the Grass Grow.” A CD+DVD digipack from the UK’s Esoteric Recordings, it’s a right plethora of audio and video highlights of Birmingham, England’s THE MOVE. Each disc contains 21 tracks; the CD is a greatest hits compilation featuring a majority of their singles and some key B-sides and album cuts. Most Move fans will already have a serviceable compilation of one vintage or another that probably covers most of what you’d want, though, and for them the attraction here is the DVD. On the region-free, NTSC video disc you get a whole lotta seldom seen footage, including the band’s complete performance on the BBC’s Colour Me Pop program from 1969, appearances on German TV’s Beat Club, and the original promo film of the title song (“I Can Hear the Grass Grow”). Video quality is pretty amazing when compared to what little is available on YouTube and other video ports, though some of the songs aren’t complete (probably due to cutting out the announcer overlapping the beginning or end of a song) or appear two or three times. Still, it’s a DVD that compiles a great many interesting and historic TV appearances.

move_3some_333pxThis isn’t to say that you don’t need the CD, oh Move fan you. It’s rare to get a best-of that includes their later, Harvest Records singles like “China Town,” “California Man” and Jeff Lynne’s classic “Do Ya,” the original version recorded by The Move. By the time they recorded these last few tunes in ’71-’72, the band consisted of Lynne, Roy Wood and Bev Bevan (the latter two the only original members left in the band). At that point the three were creating the new Electric Light Orchestra on the side, and of course, that’s the group that more people are familiar with today. But it’s here that you hear a unique alloy of the beat group that The Move started out as and the much more expansive, cello-fied group they became. It is a little odd that they chose the LP version of “Cherry Blossom Clinic” instead of the snappier single version (the version here appeared on their Shazam album and was farther out than the original) – it breaks up the momentum established by the first half of the CD. Regardless, sound quality is pretty top notch considering the combination of mono and stereo mixes and the time span covered (1966-1972).

Magnetic Waves of Sound is an audio/video document that covers all the ground The Move did during their decade together and deserves a slot in every rock fan’s CD collection.

4/5 (Esoteric Recordings ECLEC 22554, 2017) – My review of the live album, Something Else from The Move, is here.

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Frank Zappa • Joe’s Garage (Acts 1, 2 & 3) [3LP set] – Part II

Part II, in which I wrap up the story of Joe’s Garage – Frank Zappa’s 1979 3LP masterpiece.

zappa_joesgarage2_400pxJoe’s Garage, Acts 2 & 3

Act 1 of Joe’s Garage showed FRANK ZAPPA at his most adolescent. Dirty words and all, this one record release was basically a showcase for the more casual listener. It has lots of funny bits, real solid hooks and catchy songs that you couldn’t help but want to sing along with, though you might wince at singing something like “Catholic girls / with the tiny little moustache… With a tongue like a cow / she could make you go ‘wow’!” The subject matter – young Joe and his induction to the world of rock ’n’ roll – could be one of those After School Specials from the ’70s if it weren’t for the salty language and references to venereal diseases and the like.

Fast forward only a couple of months from early September ’79 and Zappa releases Joe’s Garage, Acts II & III, a 2-record set that continues where Act I left off. Instead of featuring songs that advanced the plot of Joe’s Garage, this lengthy, melancholy set focused on extended excursions into FZ’s guitar soloing. Which is to say, this is the one for those who are primarily interested in how Frank could develop a solo, from a possibly stark beginning to a meaty middle and on to its satisfying conclusion. “Watermelon in Easter Hay” is a great example, a 9-minute instrumental that displays one of the man’s greatest gifts. There are songs you can sing along to, like “Stick It Out,” but the man and the band’s musicality is what’s mostly to be enjoyed here. The plot is secondary, and though you do get to find out what happens to Joe, it is best explained in the libretto that expands on the themes of free will, free speech, the drawbacks of big government and the evils of Big Brother that the author dared explore.

zappa_wbsucks_300pxIt must have been daunting to the execs at Zappa’s new record label (they gave him his own imprint, called Zappa Records, at PolyGram earlier that year): did they really want to put out a three-record set that could very well lose money as the artist’s first release on their dollar? Well, I’m not sure how it originally went down when Zappa presented the work to the label suits, but we do know that the album was split into two releases (keeping it greasy so it’d go down easy?). The first record served as a good beginning and the second, 2LP set wrapped up the story. Sadly, the Acts II & III release suffered on its own (if you didn’t buy the first one you were highly unlikely to buy this – and you certainly would have no idea WTF was going on), but when, in 1987, the three records were first put together in one set, the whole shebang made a lot more sense. Thematically, musically, plotwise, it turned out that Joe’s Garage wasn’t nearly as indecipherable as The Who’s Tommy after all. (It actually took a poke at Tommy with the line “see the chrome, feel the chrome, touch the chrome, heal the chrome” [from “Stick It Out”]!)

Joe’s Garage, Acts 1, 2 & 3, finally, puts all of what made Frank Zappa so amazing (his guitar playing, witty lyric writing, clever song arranging) into one enormous but approachable package. The sound of the records is gorgeous, the songs on the records are among FZ’s finest and the physical format, in all its double-gatefold glory, is like the icing on a very tasty cock… err, CAKE!

4.5/5 (Zappa Records ZR3861-1, 2016)

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