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 12/2/2010 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)
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)
The 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)
Bassist BRUCE THOMAS is best known as the 4-stringer in The Attractions, the band that backed Elvis Costello on his earliest (and best) recordings. His unique bass playing has also graced records by Suzanne Vega, Peter Case, Duncan Dhu and John Wesley Harding. SPENCER BROWN is a bit harder to background. Apparently, he is “a songwriter friend” of Thomas’s, and the two decided to collaborate on Back to the Start once Thomas heard the demos of the songs that eventually were completed for the album.
Made up primarily of pleasant, pseudo psychedelic pop tunes, the album – available via Amazon as a digital download or made to order CD – Back to the Start’s arrangements include backwards guitar, descending/ascending chord progressions, harpsichord and other hallmarks of mid/late ’60s pop. Brown’s tunes remind me of those of The Rutles (that fictitious British band that might have been big had The Beatles allowed them to take over). Yet they’re not exactly parodies or send-ups because they don’t seem to completely ape the core facets of their foundational genre. Clearly, Brown is accomplished enough as a multi-instrumentalist (I’m pretty sure he plays everything here except bass) to be able to add his own stylistic flourishes and lift the tunes out of that likely morass; there is no denying, however, that the Sixties is his decade of choice when it comes to music. Lyrically, the songs are of the usual subject matter, though there are numerous turns-of-phrase that keep things from going too moon/June/spoon.
But back to the start of this review: Bruce Thomas plays the bass here, and as you’d expect, his fundamental style is well-suited for the project. His florid bass lines add a McCartneyesque vibe to the tunes, which almost sounds like lazy journalism except that it’s true. On the other hand, there’s no mistaking that this bass player is the same guy who propelled Elvis Costello’s late ’70s/early ’80s output with gutsy, over-the-top or under-the-radar bottom, depending on what the tune called for. I always suspected Thomas had more of a respect for Macca’s playing than he ever let on, and hearing Bruce in this context shows it to be true. And that’s not even considering the cover of “There’s a Place,” which closes out the album. It makes sense that Brown and Thomas would throw a Beatles tune into the mix, though it comes from a previous era than the one the rest of the album is concerned with, and thus ends the affair on a questionable note. (Or were they going, uh, back to the start?)
I’d say Back to the Start is worth a shot if either of these are true of you: a) You enjoy psychedelically-inspired music, and/or b) You’re a big fan of Bruce Thomas. I can answer affirmatively to both, and I’m glad to hear my second most favorite bass player back in the groove. Who knows? Maybe Spencer Brown and Bruce Thomas will get together for another go-round, go more grandiose and give us something really, truly fab.
2.75/5 (no label; available to order via Amazon)