BLEU – Four


Not long after the release of The Major Labels album (recorded with Mike Viola and Ducky Carlisle), power pop singer/songwriter quickly returned to the studio. Funded by fans, his fourth album  is a roller coaster ride full of great influences from the sixties and seventies. ‘Singin’ In Tongues’ is a rousing rock/pop number to get things underway, with Bleu’s quasi-aggressive vocal sounding a little like Gregg Alexander in places (albeit in delivery rather than tone). Among the general busyness, some of power pop’s key hallmarks are present: namely the big chorus driven by na-na’s, tinkling bells and an occasional nod to Phil Spector in the drum department. If it doesn’t grab you at first, subsequent listens pay off. The bells make a second appearance on ‘B.O.S.T.O.N.’ which is a great nugget of pop. Its chorus is a little repetitive by the end, but the overall vibe makes it a winner. Once again, musically Bleu favours an almost wall of sound approach; he played almost all of the instruments on this number himself…and it sounds superb. It’s almost impossible not to have this lodged firmly in their head after hearing it a couple of times.

‘How Blue’, on the other hand, is really horrid. While the music conjures up Beatle-esque dreaminess and the strings are arranged brilliantly, the track is spoilt by Bleu’s insistence on wailing in falsetto. While this isn’t the only instance of falsetto on ‘Four’, there’s something particularly jarring about it here. Without such a vocal, this could have worked, but even then it’s not the album’s most inspiring cut. During the largely acoustic ‘Everything Is Fine’ (co-written by Jellyfish head honcho Roger Manning Jr), Bleu favours some (unnecessary) falsetto in places once again, but this time, just about carries it off. Against the acoustic work, there are string quartets, a few good vocal harmonies and even the appearance of Manning’s beloved harpsichord. While the falsetto moments may not be my bag, this number has plenty of charm, due to a definite Jellyfish influence rearing its head toward the end of the chorus.

‘When The Shit Hits The Fan’ is moody, rather powerful number. With a heavy orchestration (brilliantly arranged, it must be said), it’s a number which demonstrates the breadth of Bleu’s musical influences. The strings occasionally hint at the heartbreaking soul ballads of the sixties – and it’s their presence of those strings which makes this track so great. The strings and vocal are augmented by Ducky Carlisle on kettle drums (again very effective), while Paul Ahlstrand’s saxophones are on hand for extra colour, but are so low-key they don’t always appear necessary.

‘Evil Twin’ is a wordy, twisted drone which has an Eastern vibe. A voyage into the dark side of Bleu’s psyche, this is a number which listeners will either love or hate. The drums are heavy in places, but never dominate, while Led Zeppelin-esque acoustic guitars which provide some of the best moments. Throw in some vocals which are are impassioned, but not always friendly (their slightly threatening manner reinforced by a few unexpected backing vocals ‘ooh’s) and you have something about as far removed from retro pop as you’re likely to find on an album of this kind. The vibe stays fairly moody throught ‘Ya Catch More Flies With Vinegar’ – a long, drawn out affair constructed around a drum part played by Seth Kaspar. Its wandering nature allows Bleu to stretch out his vocal – and here, he sounds supremely confident. While, again, the arrangement has some good moments, there’s no immediate hook to pull in the listener. With its veering towards something more experimental in places, it’s obvious there’s far more to this man than some of his power pop and singer-songwriter contemporaries.

‘Dead In The Mornin’’ is a punchy, horn-filled piece of brilliance, and is one of the album’s most shamelessly upbeat numbers. Sounding like ‘Wake Up Boo’ by The Boo Radleys augmented by a gospel choir, it’s a little over the top for sure, but its enthusiasm makes it impossible to ignore. While this doesn’t have the depth of some of the album’s other material, the horn section and female vocals add plenty of energy. The jaunty music is juxtaposed with lyrics regarding Bleu’s will: ‘To mom I leave my polaroids / To dad I leave my baby boy / To my friends I leave my power chords…’ A brilliant arrangement and Bleu’s slightly skewed sense of humour make this one of ‘Four’s key tracks. For those looking for something more introspective, ‘In Love With My Lover’ presents Bleu in a more fragile mood, accompanied mostly by his acoustic guitar. He’s in good voice here, clearly capable of decent delivery on the soft stuff as well as the complex. There’s a moment midway where loud drums and horns punctuate the gentle air (again, with a soul influence); although brief, it somehow fits the piece, providing a bit of contrast.

Fans invested $40,000 and a lot of faith in Bleu to deliver a new record that was worthy of their contributions. Listeners who are willing to invest listening time are likely to discover an album that’s varied, and home to a few absolutely cracking tracks. It’s not always fun, but during those downbeat moments where the hooks aren’t always obvious, the arrangements are often fantastic. Bleu has spent his fans’ donations wisely.

Watch lots of Bleu video stuff here!

December 2010

ERIC CLAPTON – 461 Ocean Boulevard

461By the tail end of the 1960s and having recorded three seminal studio albums with his power trio Cream, Eric Clapton was at the forefront of guitarists. By 1970, Blind Faith (the supergroup featuring Clapton, Steve Winwood, Family’s Ric Grech and Ginger Baker – who’d previously worked alongside Clapton in Cream) had imploded.

Clapton had grown tired of aggressive music. Instead, he spoke fondly of the Canadian retro outfit The Band. He, in turn, wished to make music with a similar smooth, rootsy feel. Enlisting a cast of musicians (including Delaney Bramlett, with whom Clapton had previously played as sideman), work began on a solo album. Released in August 1970 and titled simply ‘Eric Clapton’, the resulting disc was a reasonable stab at something with more pastel shading than guitar based aggression or purist blues. While never cited as one of Clapton’s great works, the album featured a couple of early Clapton classics: ‘Blues Power’ (a track which would become a live favourite for many years) and ‘After Midnight’, a shuffling boogie written by the then unsigned and unknown JJ Cale.

This desire to perform laid-back music could have been written off as a fad, since by the end of that year, Clapton returned fronting a full-on rock band, Derek and the Dominos, who’s sprawling double album ‘Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs’ featured a sound very different to that of Clapton’s solo disc, with many of its tracks sounding more typical of Clapton’s previous works. Despite now being heralded as one of the classic albums of the age, upon its release, the album failed to chart in the UK. Despite this, The title cut became one of Clapton’s signature numbers and eventually became a belated UK hit single when an edited version was issued in 1972 (reaching #7) and again a decade later (reaching #4).

Like Blind Faith before them, the Dominos did not enjoy a long career. By the end of 1971 they had fallen apart, with Clapton getting bogged down by a heroin dependency. This low point in Clapton’s life would stretch across the next two years, until Pete Townshend encouraged him to return to live performance, by organising a handful of star studded gigs at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1973. With Clapton substantially cleaned up and his fans delighted by his return, the time was right for him to work on a new album.

His then manager, Robert Stigwood, arranged for Clapton to rent a house in Miami where he would work upon new material. Some new music had already been demoed by Carl Radle (previously of Derek and The Dominoes) with keyboardist Dick Simms and drummer Jamie Oldaker – the three gentleman who would become the core of Clapton’s new band. They, in turn were joined by second guitarist George Terry and vocalist Yvonne Elliman (with whom Clapton later became romantically involved).

The resulting album – ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ – is largely made up of covers and a couple of blues standards. It is unclear as to whether the arrangements for these tracks came from those demo tapes presented by Clapton’s band members, but what is clear is that ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ is a great album. It adopts the semi-laid back approach that Clapton had hankered after back in 1970, but the performances are far more memorable than those featured on his debut. It may have something to do with a great choice of material, but it’s just as likely down to Clapton’s backing band being absolutely superb. [They were, perhaps, Clapton’s greatest ever band of session musicians – especially once vocalist Marcy Levy was added to their number the following year].

With regard to Clapton’s original compositions on the album, two are very strong, introspective affairs. The gentle longing of ‘Give Me Strength’ is especially telling of his state of mind. While the main base of the number is provided by Simms at the Hammond organ, it’s Clapton’s dobro playing which grabs the listener. With an absolutely crystal clear sound, the music harks back to Clapton’s blues roots while the pain in his voice highlights his vulnerability – the song itself an obvious ode to his dark, then recent past and how he desperately wants to leave those times behind and start anew. ‘Let It Grow’ has a message which is also inspired by a desire to move forward, but this time, the aching is replaced by an almost misty-eyed optimism. There’s absolutely nothing angular here and nothing for guitar fans to sink their teeth into, but the final arrangement is gorgeous. Clapton, Terry and Elliman join in harmony on various vocal moments to great effect. Clapton and Terry ten hammer out a gentle twin guitar riff over the closing minutes, creating something which would be more suited to George Harrison than Blind Faith, Derek or Cream.

The third track to feature a Clapton writing credit, ‘Get Ready’ (co-written by Yvonne Elliman) has a great groove, but little else to back it up. Capturing Clapton duetting on vocals with Elliman, lyrically, it sounds like it could have been improvised; not necessarily on the featured take, but certainly, the actual feel of the number is more important than the lyric. There is a verse, but half the song is taken up by both vocalists labouring the line ‘Get ready, he’s the one who’s gonna break your heart’. A more confident Clapton would have almost certainly punctuated this with a couple of sharp guitar runs, but as it stands, we are left with a half-finished vocal performance to carry the song. Clapton plays a couple of pointed notes at the end, but then the groove stops, as if he only played those notes in order to tease us…to remind us that the guitar god is waiting around the corner.

A take on the Elmore James number ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ lacks the fire of Fleetwood Mac’s version recorded a few years previously. Despite the relative smoothness, it’s still a great number with Clapton’s syrupy vocal tackling the song in a half-asleep back porch manner, befitting of JJ Cale (with whom, Clapton’s career would soon be often linked, thanks to a hit version of ‘Cocaine’). Although taken at a laid back pace, it’s a high point with regard to guitar playing on the album, with Clapton turning in a couple of solos (slide based, naturally, since firstly, this is an Elmore James number and secondly, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ isn’t really about solos or musical prowess). Great accompaniment is also on hand from Dick Simms on the Hammond organ. After the band pulls the track to a close, one of Clapton’s band men can be heard shouting with glee and then asking ‘Is he all right?’. Although this could have been edited, its presence gives an insight into the energy at the session.

Clapton pays further homage to his blues influences with a rendition of ‘Motherless Children’ – a now traditional blues number, often associated with Blind Willie Johnson and covered by seemingly hundreds or artists since the 1930s. While Clapton had more than enough credentials to approach this number in a blues purist’s fashion, he chooses instead to approach it as a very 70s sounding blues-rock shuffle. His band pick up most of the musical weight, with Jamie Oldaker’s shuffling approach and drum fills providing most of the better moments. I could perhaps suggest that the band’s upbeat arrangement isn’t quite suited to such bleak subject matter – and the chirpy manner in which Clapton quips ‘When you’re mother is dead’ sounds especially inappropriate as a result. However, Clapton’s slide guitar work isn’t without merit and across four minutes, this acts as a snapshot of how great Clapton’s backing band is – and more importantly, how relaxed they sound playing together. At the close of the track, Oldaker bashes his drums in a manner which would certainly suggest that – like ‘I Can’t Hold Out’ – this had been recorded live in the studio. [A couple of other numbers featured on a 2004 expanded version of the album were studio jams, so it’s likely a couple of the bluesier numbers featured on the original album were from the same session].

Perhaps ‘461’s most famous number is the cover of Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, a number which featured in Clapton’s live set for many years. While the recorded version doesn’t quite have the power of some of the live recordings (particularly those from the 1970s), Clapton and his band treat the song with great respect. Yvonne Elliman’s counter harmony helps beef up the lead vocal and a gentle reggae approach allows Oldaker to lay down a tight drum part with a few fantastic fills. Clapton occasionally punctuates the rhythm with a lead guitar note or two, often echoed by Dick Simms at the organ, but his piano fills which create the biggest impression. It must be tricky being a bunch of white rock musicians tackling the work of a reggae legend, yet somehow, Clapton and co hold onto their dignity.

‘Please Be With Me’ is a pastel shaded acoustic number, featuring Clapton sounding somewhat content with his current situation. While the twin guitars of Clapton and Terry make for great, rootsy listening – Clapton’s dobro work here particularly charming, once again – the track’s shining moments come from Yvonne Elliman’s harmony vocals. A take on Robert Johnson’s ‘Steady Rollin’ Man’ works its way through a funky riff that nods towards The Allman Brothers with its easy funkiness. Over that groove, Clapton’s vocal is slightly harder than on much of ‘461’. Jamie Oldaker, meanwhile, carries most of the weight with a drum groove that’s busy without ever becoming intrusive. There are a couple of guitar solos featured; though these are relatively busy, they’re certainly not aggressive in the way Clapton had been in his Cream or Derek and the Dominos days.

‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ (originally by Johnny Otis) has a rock ‘n’ roll rhythm slowed down to almost a reggae pace. Oldaker’s drum fills are great, as always and Simms maintains a middling presence on the organ. Bassist Carl Radle features higher in the mix than on most of the album, but doesn’t manage to do anything wholly remarkable and Yvonne Elliman’s harmony vocals are understated. Clapton and his band could have tackled Johnny Otis with a bit more enthusiasm; in this form, ‘Willie and the Hand Jive’ is filler material at best. [Clapton doesn’t have an especially good track record with regard to Johnny Otis numbers: On his 1983 release, ‘Money and Cigarettes’, Clapton covered ‘Crazy Country Hop’. The end result was a horribly low point on an already patchy album].

Written by guitarist George Terry, ‘Mainline Florida’ comes with a pleasing guitar riff, but like so much of ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ it leans towards a sunny, jammed out vibe with no sharp edges. Letting his hired hands do most of the work here, it becomes obvious what a great band Clapton has in tow. Elliman’s backing vocals have a real presence; Dick Simms’s organ style throughout the number is limited to big chords with nothing fancy, but yet he still manages to leave his mark, while Jamie Oldaker’s drum style goes the distance without breaking beyond a solid shuffle. Each musician knows his or her role and never fights for domination. Clapton, meanwhile, never fights for domination either, with his unthreatening vocal delivery almost lost in the mix at times.

In all of its shiny eyed optimism, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ may not bring much in the way of original new material, but it presents Clapton at one of his career peaks – and in good shape. It’s interesting in that, for a guitarist, the album features so few obvious guitar solos. In this respect, the album’s arrangements are left to stand with relative simplicity, with no show-boating or none of the featured musicians taking a deliberate place out in front (Clapton included).

If you’re a fan of Clapton’s more ferocious work with Cream or Derek and the Dominos, it’s highly likely you’ll think of this album as lightweight or slight. While it may not carry much of a bite, despite a couple of misses, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ is one of Clapton’s best releases. With regard to his solo work, it may even be the best.

December 2010

Posted in 70s

SEBASTIEN – Tears Of White Roses

white roses

Sebastien is a band/project based in the Czech Republic, specialising in metal with many symphonic and progressive influences. Their press release claims their music is a breakthrough in progressive and symphonic music, but with regard to their chosen musical field, it’s a  struggle to hear anything that doesn’t sound like a bunch of safe, tried-and-tested ideas.

There was always hope that the roll-call of guest performers may go some way towards making this a worthwhile listen, but sadly, their performances aren’t anything special either. Take for example the guest spots by Amanda Somerville – on ‘Femme Fatale’ she gets no more than a few lines in the spotlight while on ‘Black Rose Part II’ her potentially very strong harmony vocal is left hovering somewhere in the back of the mix, somewhere behind Cornerstone’s Doogie White. Thankfully, on this big, theatrical ballad White’s vocals are strong enough to carry the piece (just as they had been on the previous ‘Black Rose Part I’). More should have been asked of Somerville, though, especially since her voice shines among the barrage of male metal voices.

‘Dorian’ and ‘Fields of Chlum (1866 A.D.)’ feature vocals by Rhapsody of Fire and Vision Divine vocalist Fabio Lione. His slightly more restrained delivery is well suited to both pieces. While a (far, far too loud) church organ dominates ‘Dorian’, a chorus where Lione harmonises with Roland Grapow provides what is easily this album’s best moment. Both vocalists are in fine form, and the melody itself is far more memorable than anything else here. ‘Fields’ is a power ballad, and while it contains a similar amount of power, thanks to a decent mid-pace, it doesn’t end up as stifling as most of Sebastien’s material.

‘Voices In Your Heart’ (featuring Masterplan’s Mike DiMeo and Roland Grapow) offers plenty in the way of speed, but far too much macho posturing and relentless double-bass drums make the end result rather unpleasurable. ‘Silver Rain’ (featuring Firewind’s Apollo Papathanasio) is slightly better as it carries a great down-tuned guitar riff riff in places and a great bass chug. The bas could have been put to far better use, mind; the upfront playing disappears after the intro. Once Papathanasio starts to sing, though, any promise is swept away. His loud, heavily accented vocals (delivered at full bore) are just too full on – and not especially tuneful.

The couple of performances featuring Fabio Lione are the only numbers preventing ‘Tears of White Roses’ from being completely forgettable. A couple of the guitar solos are decent and Roland Grapow’s production is solid, but since Sebastien have favoured complexity over memorable material and obvious hooks, they’re never going to be able to compete with Euro heavyweights such as Jorn Lande or Arjen Lucassen when it comes to this kind of thing.

December 2010

MOTÖRHEAD – The World Is Yours


Twenty studio albums and various live albums into their career, it’s only Lemmy who remains from the “classic” Motörhead line up, but in many ways, that’s all you need. On 2010’s ‘The World Is Yours’, Lemmy, drummer Mikkey Dee and guitarist Phil Campbell (celebrating seventeen years together – Motörhead’s longest serving line-up) add little to their back-catalogue with regard to new ideas. However, this far into a career which has stuck almost rigidly to Lemmy’s original musical vision, they’re preaching to the converted. If you didn’t get the Motörhead ethos by now, you never will. And if you are someone who doesn’t get it, it’s likely Lemmy doesn’t care.

Recycling an already familiar title, ‘Born to Lose’ opens with a solid riff from Phil Campbell and it soon becomes clear very quickly that this isn’t a re-recording of an earlier Motörhead number. The riff may be decent, but it’s Mikkey Dee’s drumming which provides the moments of real greatness. Here, Dee pulls out all the stops, delivering something worthy of “classic” early Motörhead. His kit thunders out of the speakers with a great amount of power – spending so many years playing the intro to ‘Overkill’ must have left its mark. The guitar riff from the opening bars is replaced by something more rudimentary during the verses, but makes a timely return on the chorus sections. Campbell’s featured solo is full of wah-wah goodness and features a decent level of aggression. Meanwhile, the rhythm guitar riff placed underneath beefs things up further by delivering something reminiscent of ‘Mars: The Bringer of War’ from Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets Suite’.

‘I Know What You Need’, ‘Devils In My Head’ and ‘I Know How To Die’ are archetypal examples of the sound which made Motörhead world famous. Although short on surprises, Lemmy, Dee and Campbell sound as tight as ever on these tracks – the furious solo on ‘I Know How To Die’ is possibly one of the album’s best and there’s a catchy edge present on ‘Devils In My Head’ thanks to a great shout along chorus.

With most Motörhead discs, there’s a slower, chugging number and ‘Brotherhood of Man’ offers one of their most threatening. Over a brooding riff, Lemmy recounts the fate of a world ravaged by war; a corrupt place where everyone has blood on their hands and murder is law. Lemmy’s vocal delivery steps down from its usual shouting croak and drops to an even lower register. In an almost spoken word delivery and Lemmy growls his way through some incredibly heavy lyrical content. A mid-section picks things up briefly as Dee sounds as if he’s gearing the band up for Campbell to deliver a killer solo, but after a couple of bars, the band drop back into the main riff in time for Lemmy to deliver the last verse. Naturally, Campbell squeezes in a solo at the close, but it’s quite understated. The chugging riff and doomy vocal are the big draw here – and this ‘Orgasmatron’ inspired number really hits it’s mark.

Lemmy and co sound at their most enthusiastic when they’re let loose upon a couple of numbers which are less influenced by hard rock and metal and lean farther towards old style rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’ does exactly what it says on the tin, with Lemmy rasping his way through a number which borrows a musical aesthetic from very early AC/DC. It ends up sounding unavoidably like Motörhead, of course (especially on the choruses), but there’s a sense of fun delivered with a slight arrogance that’s often absent elsewhere. ‘Bye Bye Bitch Bye Bye’ takes the love for such rock ‘n’ roll tendencies to a whole new level as Motörhead speed their way through something which sounds like Status Quo’s take on Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, but played with twice the aggression, served up with some mildly distubing misogyny. While Motörhead can often be accused to recycling tried-and-tested musical formulas and lyrical ideas, the energy behind this number proves the sparks of brilliance are still very much there.

Measured up against a few of their other 21st Century releases, ‘The World Is Yours’ may not match the greatness 2004’s ‘Inferno’, or deliver it’s songs at the blistering speed of the best moments of 2000’s ‘We Are Motörhead’, but it’s almost certainly as good as ‘Kiss of Death’ or ‘Motörizer’. The unconvinced are likely to remain unconvinced, but for the dedicated Motörfan, there are more than enough gems here.

December 2010

ONE DAY AS A LION – One Day As A Lion


One Day as a Lion is an alliance between Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha and ex-Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore. That’s it. Two guys: one with a loud drum kit and the other with a message. No band. …And ultimately, very little in the way of music – just vocals, lots of very distorted Fender Rhodes keyboard noise and that aforementioned drum kit.

This EP lyrically contains the anger and passion of the best Rage Against The Machine material. Witness Zack during the title cut: “Blood soaked earth that you call home, close your eyes but don’t sleep / We comin’ like a people’s army for those who don’t eat” […] “smashed in his dome with a club of a white fed / No food, no water, no rights read”. Elsewhere he says “Your god is a homeless assassin who roams the world to save / He’s digging for buried treasures, leaving nothing but fields of graves” (‘Last Letter’). There’s enough lyrical bite to potentially make this thrilling.

This EP could have been great, but falls very short of mark, since musically, One Day As A Lion have relatively little fire and in addition, the keyboard drones become grating over the course of the twenty minute playing time. While Theodore’s drum work is aggressive, it’s just not enough to carry Zack’s message effectively.

Zack’s socio-political rants certainly work far better with Rage Against The Machine’s more sophisticated musical style. …And as for the rest of Rage, judging by the Audioslave releases, their musical tricks and style sound tired and lame without Zack. Although Zack’s 80s hardcore band Inside Out had their moments and Tom Morello’s melodic rock/funk metal outfit Lock Up showed signs of greatness, the release of that first RATM album truly raised the bar. For best results, all four guys really need to work together, but you hardly needed me to tell you that…did you?

February 2010