5/5 (Hip-O Records)
5/5 (Hip-O Records)
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)
[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)
[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.
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)
[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! They 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.
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)
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)
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)
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)