Monthly Archives: November 2017

TC&I • Great Aspirations [CD EP]

TC&I is the name given the duo of Colin Moulding and Terry Chambers, the once upon a time rhythm section of vaunted new wavers XTC. The bassist and drummer recently got together to do some recording, and the first product of that liaison is Great Aspirations, an EP of four songs recorded in their hometown of Swindon, England.

If you’re a fan of XTC and, in particular, Moulding’s songs, this CD EP is probably a no-brainer purchase. Opener “Scatter Me” is definitely the best of the quartet, bringing to mind latter day Moulding greats like “King for a Day,” with “Kenny” coming in second. “Greatness (The Aspiration Song),” however, is kind of trite in its listing of great people and “Comrades of Pop” treads a similar path. After not hearing anything from Moulding since XTC’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2) from 2000, this release had a lot to live up to and it doesn’t make it. He writes some great songs but these aren’t those.

Great Aspirations is definitely an excellent showcase of Colin’s bass playing – always one of the secret weapons in XTC’s armory. He also plays guitar and keyboards, which have only ever been evident on the handful of his demos that have come out as B-sides of XTC singles. Yet, for Moulding (to paraphrase Sun Ra), bass is the place. As for Terry Chambers, he’s still the quite capable drummer he always was, but there’s a tightness to his playing here that feels too perfect, like a drum machine, or at the least, a digitally recorded, quantized drum track. There’s a lack of swing in the drumming so the songs feel sort of plain. And that, along with the production, which is “stock” good but lacking the kind of excitement that XTC’s best records have, make this a bit of a ho-hum affair. I hope this is just TC&I testing the waters and there’s something better in the works. Perhaps a great aspiration for something even better…

2.5/5 (TC&I Music TC&I-CD-001, 2017; available via Pledge Music)

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Brinsley Schwarz • It’s All Over Now [CD, LP]

BRINSLEY SCHWARZ may be one of the most peculiarly named bands in rock history. They weren’t named after a dance craze, or as an homage to one of their favorite bands, or for any other reason except that one of the guys in the band was actually named Brinsley Schwarz. Perhaps the names Nick Lowe, Ian Gomm, Bob Andrews and Billy Rankin weren’t memorable enough…

Well, for whatever reason, a band called Kippington Lodge morphed into Brinsley Schwarz (oh, the humanity!) and became one of Britain’s most recognizable late ’60s “pub rock” bands. A genre marked by similar instrumentation to rock ’n’ roll and country, and lying somewhere in between (but not really “country rock”), pub rock would eventually morph into punk rock and new wave when guys like Joe Strummer went from The 101’ers to The Clash, and Brinsley Schwarz’s Nick Lowe went solo. It’s All Over Now is that band’s final studio album, recorded in 1974 and briefly released and then withdrawn. It’s unclear as to why the album came and went, except that all of the group’s members seemed to have lost interest in Brinsley Schwarz (the band) and perhaps weren’t all that keen on the album’s release; the label may have yanked it once they realized there was apparently no longer a band to back up the record. In 1988 it was reissued as mixed by band guitarist Gomm, and it appears that that mix was used for this release on Mega Dodo. The same eleven tracks make up both issues, including the original version of Gomm and Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” which became the latter’s biggest hit when re-recorded in 1979. (The Brinsleys version is more subdued and mellow.) Other tracks include the bouncy “Give Me Back My Love,” which takes The Equals’ “Baby Come Back” riff and turns it sideways, another that sounds like Lowe’s later “When I Write the Book” (which he recorded with Rockpile in 1980) and the title track, a reggaefied cover of The Rolling Stones’ cover of The Valentinos’ minor early ’60s R&B hit. Overall, It’s All Over Now is kind of a low-key affair, and not as rockin’ as the band’s official swan song, 1974’s The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz, which included Lowe’s original recording of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” If you’re a fan of said pub rock and/or Lowe – or the other members of the band, who went on to form The Rumour (of Graham Parker fame), among others – this humble release is worth tracking down.

2.5/5 (Mega Dodo BSCD2, 2017; available direct from the label)

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R.E.M. • Automatic for the People [LP]

It’s already been 25 years since R.E.M. put out their last great album, Automatic for the People. This anniversary sees the release of a few different configurations to choose from (as is the custom these days), including a 3CD/BD deluxe set, a 2CD version and what I’m primarily concerned with here, an all-analog remaster on vinyl. This 180 gram audiophile pressing comes in your basic LP cover (faithful to the original release), with a printed inner sleeve and digital download voucher card. Mastered by industry vet Stephen Marcussen* at Precision Mastering, this vinyl is pretty quiet (as in, in between songs and in quiet moments) and has a very rich sound.

Some of that richness might be attributed to the fact that Automatic was a fairly orchestrated affair, with a handful of tunes bathed in strings arranged by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame. Another factor is that, by this time in R.E.M.’s career, they were trying out a lot of different styles and arrangements beyond their standard guitar/bass/drums/Stipe archetype. Peter Buck’s often arpeggiated 12-string guitar is typically replaced by more inventive guitar parts, organ and other keyboard pads that make the record a much more moody thing than previous releases. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” used bits ’n’ bobs of the old pop classic (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) to interesting effect – not sampling, more like paraphrasing – though the “deeee dee deee deee” gets a little trying. Meanwhile, “Star Me Kitten” uses the F-word in place of the star in its title and, despite being a cool track with a lush vocal bed, is slightly overshadowed by the version R.E.M. did with writer William S. Burroughs narrating the lyrics. (It appeared on a soundtrack album for The X-Files.) Also present is “Everybody Hurts,” which feels a little syrupy but really works when the drums kick in and the orchestra just goes for it. I think “Man on the Moon” is still one of their greatest songs, and was so well regarded that it was used for the title and soundtrack of the film about comedian Andy Kaufman. In all, R.E.M. achieved something pretty daunting with Automatic for the People; it sold over 18 million copies worldwide, so clearly this was something much bigger than anything Murmur hinted at.

Those going for the 2CD version of Automatic will get a live concert recorded in 1992 at Athens, GA’s 40-Watt Club, the place where R.E.M. cut their teeth. This is substantial, as the band didn’t tour behind the album and this show was their only one of the year. And if you’re plunking down the extra bucks for the deluxe release you’ll also get a CD of demos and a Blu-ray disc with a new Dolby Atmos mix of the album. (Atmos is sorta like surround sound, but with sound coming at you from the ceiling if your system’s wired and hardwared that way; otherwise it will play as a 5.1 surround mix via standard AV surround receivers.)

Though it wasn’t necessarily the album for many of us who discovered the band when they first showed up with 1982’s Chronic Town EP, Automatic for the People was a watershed for R.E.M. It demonstrated that there was much more to this foursome than mumbly vocals and jangly guitars.

* Marcussen mastered the original vinyl, and appears to have done this version, too (though that credit could be a holdover from the artwork for the original album sleeve).

4/5 (Craft Recordings CR00046, 1992/2017)

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

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The Jazz Butcher began life as a fellow named Pat Fish. As a young man, Fish found himself writing peculiar songs in the English countryside and eventually put together a loose collection of blokes to help him perform them. That evolved into a band, which was also dubbed THE JAZZ BUTCHER, and they soon managed to record some of their nascent musical scrapings and have them released by a fledgling indie label, Glass Records. A handful of albums and singles followed, and the long players have now been compiled into a 4CD “box set” they call The Wasted Years.

Spanning 1983 to 1986, The Jazz Butcher’s four initial albums (their entire Glass LP discography) make up four discs in a book configuration, with a short 20 page booklet that includes Pat Fish’s recounting of his band’s early history. Released by Fire Records, it’s a nice overview of a band that mixed humorous lyrics about oddball subjects to “new wave” music with compelling results. Bath of Bacon was their 1983 debut, a time when (according to Fish) “none of us really had a clue as to what we were at.” As he also notes about the band’s primal beginnings, some songs from the album have stood the test of time, such as “Partytime” and “Zombie Love.” Bath of Bacon was definitely a rookie recording, with its lo-fi sound and skeletal arrangements. That was to be improved upon tenfold with A Scandal in Bohemia, The Jazz Butcher’s second full length and quite the stunner.

Only a year later the group had gelled with Fish, guitarist Max Eider, bassist David J – who had been in Bauhaus and later Love And Rockets – and drummer Owen Jones. The Scandal lineup committed numerous JB classics, such as “Southern Mark Smith (Big Return),” which was a remake of a single track in a more stately arrangement with new lyrics, and “Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present”, a rocker about a peculiar episode of a woman getting stuck in an elevator with a gift “made entirely of the skins of dead Jim Morrisons – that’s why it smelled so bad.” We never learn what the present actually was, though it was biodegradable so that elevator must’ve really stunk! From hard rocking rave-ups like that to the introspective (if slightly skewed) “My Desert” and “Real Men”’s anti-racist/fascist/sexist rant, Fish’s lyrics, the band’s arrangements and John A. Rivers’ production are compelling and warrant repeated listening even today, some thirty plus years later.

The followup to Scandal, Sex and Travel, is a bit less amazing but almost as good. This time we learn pretty much nothing about “President Reagan’s Birthday Present,” which features the chant “red Russians shot my rocket down” over and over, but we do get the sober and almost beautiful opener “Big Saturday” and another thought provoker, “Walk with the Devil.” Sex and Travel, with only eight songs, was sort of like a mini Scandal Part 2.

1986’s Distressed Gentlefolk gets short shrift in Fish’s notes, and it did with many of The Jazz Butcher’s fans at the time, too. The album lacked a lot of the humor and oddball situations that made the previous albums and singles so fun, and the band – though more seasoned – play it too seriously and sober. Humor and anarchy, hallmarks of the band, took a backseat on Gentlefolk. That being said, one of Fish’s most gorgeous songs, “Angels,” closes the album (and this box set) on a hauntingly beautiful note.

The Wasted Years gives us those four albums, and those four albums only. None of The Jazz Butcher’s great singles tracks are here. Not “The Human Jungle,” not “Death Dentist,” not even “Water” or “Grooving in the Bus Lane.” I know there’s more than a full CD worth of stray songs the band did circa 1983-1986 that warrant compilation, and they would have been very welcome as bonus tracks on each of these four discs or as a fifth disc to sort of wrap up the proceedings. Perhaps that compilation is in the offing. Whatever, The Jazz Butcher’s first era set up a great foundation for the next one, when they moved on to Creation Records and put out more brilliant LPs, such as Fishcotheque and (my favorite) Cult of the Basement.

Anyway, I’m not sure about the title of this set. Does Fish feel that ’83-’86 were wasted years? Wasted in the sense of not worth it? Or in the sense (I suspect) that the band spent much of its time wasted? Either way, if you don’t own these albums, or are missing the very hard to find debut, The Wasted Years is certainly worth the price and no waste of your time or money.

3.5/5 (Fire Records FIRECD 460, 2017)

 

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Mark Fisher • The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls [Book]

xtc bumper bookBefore the internet, “fanzines” were just about the only way us hardcore fans (“fan” + “[maga]zine” = fanzine) could stay on top of the latest info on our favorite bands. Limelight was an XTC fanzine edited and written by Mark Fisher. The self-published ’zine ran for over a decade, spanning nine issues and the metamorphosis from typewriter/rub-on letter layouts to more professional, early word processor (computer) layouts.

The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology collects ten years worth of these indie publications into one big book of memories and new information about the author’s favorite band, XTC. Though I wasn’t a subscriber to Fisher’s UK-based ’zine, I did subscribe to its Canadian counterpart, The Little Express. (I actually wrote a review for that one at some point in the early ’90s.)

In its 256 pages, Bumper Book reprises all of Limelight’s content, and includes brand new interviews with XTC members Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory and Terry Chambers along with remembrances by famous Brits that most of us Yanks probably wouldn’t have heard of (unless you know who Phill Jupitus and Joanna Neary are). Vintage pages (at left, below) are presented as they were originally done by Fisher, while the new content (at right) is laid out in a way our modern eyes will recognize and welcome.There’s a lot of interesting – if a bit lightweight – content here, with its word jumbles (“Complicated Games,” taking its name from an XTC song title), fan letters and most of all the gossipy stories on the band’s studio activities. Fisher must have gotten at least some of his info from the band or its management, as both Limelight and The Little Express were always noted in the credits of XTC’s albums. The fact that they are once again willing participants in the publication’s pages shows that Mark Fisher must have had the band’s approval both then and now.

Until XTC’s deluxe reissue of Black Sea comes out late this month – or while you’re taking in the Colin Moulding/Terry Chambers project, TC&I, which is out now – this compendium of XTC’s early hijinks ought to be a lot of fun.

The Bumper Book is available for £17.99 plus £5 international shipping. (As of this writing, that’s about $30 USD.) Look for reviews on both aforementioned XTC related releases in the near future!

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The Jam • 1977 [CD Box Set]

the jam 1977 boxThe punk rock movement of the late ’70s was a firestorm of amped up rock ’n’ roll like nothing before it. While London, England was the music’s ground zero, over here it caught on simultaneously in far apart cities like NYC, Los Angeles, etc. For those of us who lived in the suburbs – I grew up in Garden Grove, California (“the OC,” for those keeping score at home) – the news was disseminated via occasional blurbs in the rock magazines (primarily Creem and Circus), and hype-loaded stories on the daily TV news. I’m not sure when I first figured out something of actual importance was happening. It probably dawned on me one day when I noticed all of these different bands, like the Sex Pistols, The Clash and THE JAM were being described in similar ways. And that it was actually music, not just a bunch of idiots causing riots in safety pins and mohawks. And this music, whatever it was, was not Boston, Journey or Styx!

In their first calendar year alone, a young threesome called The Jam released their first two albums and a few singles. 1977 collects those two LPs – In the City and This Is the Modern World – two discs of demos and live tracks and a DVD of TV appearances and promo videos in one handy little box set. The champion Jam fan will have most of what is on offer here, as a majority of it is available from disparate sources like previous album reissues, box sets and the like. But if you’re interested in collecting most of their, ahem, 1977 output in one place, this succinctly titled compendium is for you. In the City and the band’s next single (“All Around the World” b/w “Carnaby Street”) make up the first disc, so there’s the title single and other firestarters like “I’ve Changed My Address” and “Away from the Numbers.” An insanely massive debut, that. On another disc, This Is the Modern World (weaker but it’s all relative) appears by itself, without any non-LP B-sides. I don’t know why; there’s plenty of room for the live tracks that supported “The Modern World” 45 and they were recorded in ’77. Sure, they have appeared in other places since then, but so has a lot of what’s in this box set. In fact, five of the eleven demos on the second disc have been previously released. Perhaps The Jam’s main songwriter (and head honcho) Paul Weller vetoed their inclusion. Dumb. For The Jam did some killer covers back then (“Slow Down” was on their debut album; “In the Midnight Hour” was on elpee number two), so live takes of “Sweet Soul Music” and “Back in My Arms Again” completely suit the all-inclusive MO of this release.

Those demos on disc two are pretty fun to listen to but ultimately not all that different from what appeared on In the City. Still, you do get an early version of their eventual cover of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” and an early shot at Larry Williams’ aforementioned “Slow Down,” along with nine other tracks that were properly recorded for their debut long player. Disc Four, dubbed “Live 1977,” includes two sessions recorded for the John Peel show on the BBC (eight songs, all previously released on The Jam at the BBC) and a previously unreleased September 1977 concert recorded at The Nashville in London. Here’s where you can hear a pummeling version of “Sweet Soul Music,” the Arthur Conley R&B classic The Jam covered frequently (the one on the single was recorded that same month at The 100 Club). Even your canniest Jam fan would probably not discern there’s any difference. Still.

A pair of promo videos and nine tracks filmed for TV make up the DVD, and these are always fun from an historic standpoint. The Jam is shown to be very determined, focused and unflagging on multiple appearances on Top of the Pops, a show called So It Goes, and a single song slot on Marc Bolan’s program, Marc. Seeing Bolan introduce the band is a treat.

In all, 1977 is reasonably priced, what with five discs of aural and visual entertainment, a clipping ’n’ photo filled book and five prints of the cover and other shots. What The Jam accomplished in their short lifetime is something special, and this box set puts their nascent beginnings on compelling audio and video display. They were three guys, barely twenty years old, delivering their youthful views on life (politics, culture, etc.) to a willing-to-listen audience of their peers. With the support of their growing fanbase they went on to achieve much more than what their 1977 output hinted at, ushering in a musically exciting, modern world.

3.5/5 (Polydor/UMC 5771550, 2017)

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