candy butchers

There are so many under-rated geniuses working in the power pop field, but none more deserving of huge recognition as Mike Viola, whose fourth full length release ‘Hang On Mike’- released under the Candy Butchers moniker – captures the singer-songwriter at his absolute best.

The album begins with ‘What To Do With Michael’, a tale of a hit-and-miss relationship, set to an almost guitar-less, bouncing arrangement with the piano firmly upfront. Its purely seventies arrangement features the best elements of early Billy Joel crossed with the sunshine vibe of ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ by Captain and Teneille. It’s one of those tracks which sounds eternally fresh; something about that particular style of stabbing piano is consistently pleasing (Let’s be honest, ‘Allentown’ by Billy Joel…it never gets old, does it?). ‘Nice To Know You’ continues the seventies vibe but has extra focus on vocal harmony; while ‘Hang On Mike’ showcases better songs than this, it holds up as a great example of how Viola knows how to write a simple, yet effective melody and how although fashions may change, the kinds of pop Viola loved in the seventies have an almost timeless appeal.

‘Not So Bad At All’ captures a perfect punchy pop feeling, hovering somewhere between Jellyfish at their most direct and New York’s Mark Bacino, but if it’s an instant pop frenzy you’re looking for, the Jellyfish meets Brian Wilson-isms of ‘Let’s Have a Baby’ will provide instant joy. The stabbing piano should be enough, but when combined with a quirky chorus vocal featuring potential baby names, the song hits a whole new level of infectiousness. At just under three minutes, the moment is gone before long, but it should be more than enough to leave you smiling. ‘Sparkle!’ is even more upbeat, with camp overtones as Mike’s trademark pop is driven towards show tune territory with a wry grin.  That wry grin is hosted by the “untrustworthy narrator”, since although this is a number which sounds flippant and happy upon the surface, its lyrical content is somewhat steeped in sadness.

‘Unexpected Traffic’ demonstrates the flipside of Mike’s song craft. An acoustic based, introspective number, you get a sense of Mike’s voice cracking under emotional weight. In a similar vein, although lyrically far more direct, ‘Painkillers’ is heartbreaking, as it tells of the death of someone very close and the daily struggles of coming to terms with deep sadness. While the album’s acoustic numbers often give Viola more gravitas as a songwriter, it’s his poppier works which provide the album with its long lasting appeal and most memorable moments. ‘Kiss Alive II’ shows a sly humour, not unlike Ben Folds, where Mike tells the tale of musical discovery as he attempts to turn a friend on to the piano based mastery of 1970’s Elton John (specifically ‘Bennie and the Jets’) and in return gets a copy of KISS’s double live opus [It’s up to the listener to decide whom gets the best deal there]. The song’s structure is based around simple but fairly dominant piano chords – likely meant to evoke classic Elton, but somehow ending up a little more Billy Joel…which, of course, is more than fine.

The title cut features a slightly strained vocal on fragile verses, but is balanced by a perfect pop chorus in an autobiographical tale (“Hang on Mike, if there’s one thing you’re good for, it’s holding on / Hang on Mike, if there’s one thing your good for, it’s another song”). No-one is in a better position to recognise fame isn’t always an overnight success than Viola. He may have written the songs in the “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” movie and provided vocals in the Tom Hanks flick “That Thing You Do”, but somehow the accolade of being a true household name seems to have eluded him.

When his second album (‘Falling Into Place’) was released, Mike sounded as if he had the chops to be one of the greatest singer-songwriters to come through in a long while – and this fourth album leaves absolutely no doubt about his talent. If you still hanker after the days when things were as well crafted as Todd Rundgren’s ‘Something/Anything’, then this is essential.

July 2010

THE GO! TEAM – Rolling Blackouts

go team

Back in 2005 when the Go! Team’s debut (‘Thunder, Lightning, Strike’) was released, there seemed to be a genuine buzz of excitement among the indie/alternative community. However, despite having a broad musical taste, I just couldn’t take to their mish-mash of guitar pop, dance loops and occasional cheerleader-esque vocals. Within a few months of its release, I forgot about them. Their sophomore album (‘Proof of Youth’) bought them bigger chart success, and yet its release passed me by at first; even though I was mixing with the same people, for some reason, they’d stopped talking about the Brighton sextet.

At the beginning of 2011, The Go! Team returned with their third release, which presents a similar mix of styles as before; some parts of which, naturally, work better than others. The opening track ‘T.O.R.N.A.D.O’ mixes blaxploitation sounds with a danceable groove and ends up sounding like a Beastie Boys cast off. While that end groove has something of appeal, the beats are hard and the sampled horns are potentially headache inducing; this drowns out the vocal line – though I suspect Ninja’s bad rap stylings are of an empty sentiment. A swift u-turn in sound follows with ‘Secretary Song’(featuring Satomi Matsuzaki of Deerhoof)- a track which brings a mix of twee indie pop (a la Saint Etienne) and fuzzy guitar lines. There’s a sweet tune hiding within the hard beats and, once again, the vocals are a bit fudgy sounding, but there’s enough here to get a sense of what the band were aiming for musically.

The instrumental cut ‘Bust-Out Brigade’ really hits the spot with its huge (sampled) horns and general funkiness. There’s a sassiness which would befit a 1970s cop movie, even though the sounds of a glockenspiel occasionally gives the feeling of a marching band! As a long time fan of the Beasties’ ‘In Sound From Way Out’ compilation, this really appeals to me and I wish The Go! Team would do this sort of thing more often. Featuring a guest vocal from Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino (very much the indie/alternative pop flavour of the month by the end of 2010), the lead single, ‘Buy Nothing Day’ is a decent slice of guitar-driven indie-pop, all ringing guitars and sunshine – the kind you’ve heard hundreds of times before – but stylistically, it really suits The Go! Team.

‘Voice Yr Choice’ is a proper dud. Against a very synthetic sounding arrangement (bar some live drums, rather loud in the end mix), Ninja delivers a really awful rap performance. It’s the kind that’s so bad, you realise that maybe Betty Boo wasn’t so bad after all. Luckily, it becomes a distant memory quickly; as soon as it ends, The Go! Team swiftly move on to something more enjoyable. ‘Yosemite Blues’ is a busy (mostly) instrumental number which fuses funk, banjos, more glockenspeils and live drums in a way which sounds like a cross between alternative rock/pop and a 1970s theme tune for a western.

Following a slightly out of tune instrumental played on an old upright piano (‘Lazy Poltergeist’),the title track brings with it plenty of punch and fuzzy guitars. A hushed vocal gives the performance an odd contrast. Listening to it, it’s hard to believe it’s the work of the same band that has a penchant for bad rap, sassy horns and busy sampling. That diversity is either very cool, or The Go! Team’s biggest weakness, depending on your personal viewpoint.

For almost pure pop, ‘Ready To Go Steady’ is a standout, with twee sixties influences and almost surfy vibe. The sampled drum fills are put to good use and its simple vocal hook is effective, creating something sounds like The Postmarks meets Saint Etienne. Also, fully exploring kitsch, a short instrumental, ‘Super Triangle’ utilises a simple retro synth tune over acoustic guitars. To those of a certain age, its hard not to listen to this and visualise the old BBC Testcard.

Occasionally, you’ll get a track where all of most of The Go! Team’s elements come together, as they do during ‘Apollo Throwdown’. The live drums are punchy, the sampled beats drive things along and the music has a very retro vibe, echoing the disco era. The rap elements aren’t as embarrassing (though not entirely to my tastes) and a chorus employs an almost cheer-leading aspect. These elements feel far more natural here than on some other tracks.

As before, it’s sometimes difficult to work out at whom The Go! Team are aiming their smorgasbord of sounds. Listening to ‘Rolling Blackouts’, I like them far more than I ever did before (even being inspired enough to revisit their previous works). There’s a lot here to enjoy, providing you can get past the often claustrophobic nature of the end product. As good as some of this is, though, there’s still a feeling that The Go! Team still haven’t fully realised their potential.

January 2011

VAN MORRISON – Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart

inarticulate speech

After his late 60s albums ‘Astral Weeks’ and ‘Moondance’ established Van Morrison as one of the greatest singer songwriters of the age, he entered the 1970s in very high regard and with great confidence. The rhythm and blues led ‘His Band and Street Choir’ kick started Morrison’s greatest decade, during which he released a string of superb albums – all strong in their own way and each one featuring a handful of genuinely classic tracks.

Like many of his peers, Morrison appeared to be out of step with the 1980s. He began the decade with the release of ‘Common One’, an understated collection of largely ambling and, at times, almost directionless songs. The largely forgettable ‘Beautiful Vision’ followed, although that’s very much worth checking out for the upbeat ‘Cleaning Windows’ featuring Mark Knopfler on guitar. In 1983, Van released the keyboard heavy ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’, an album considered by some to be the nadir of his career.

The main problem with ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is obvious right from the start, as ‘Higher Than The World’ begins with a wash of keyboards (somewhat akin to those that Simply Red would drench their albums in a few years later) leading to an easy-listening mulch, not far removed from Sade or something similar. Given an arrangement that would befit a restaurant, Morrison does his utmost to create interest, as his gruff voice moves from moody mumbling to lumbering loudness at the drop of a hat. By a couple of minutes in, there’s a feeling that he may be over compensating, as he warbles off key in his “enthusiasm”.

Initially, the synthetic eighties sound is quite suited to ‘Connswater’, the first of the album’s instrumental numbers, but soon it becomes obvious that the eighties production comes at the expense of one of the track’s key features. The tune has a distinctly Irish feel, with Davy Spillane making a guest appearance on Uileann pipes. The jig element of the number is very pleasing, but the bridge sections – featuring a pounding drum – are lacklustre, due to the drum being far too low in the mix. You guessed it – the dominant sound over that drum is a keyboard, not too dissimilar to the one featured during the previous track. The sax driven ‘Celtic Swing’ follows suit and, as you’d expect, has a jaunty quality. Production aside, there’s nothing overtly dislikeable about either of these instrumental numbers, but they feel rather like filler – and if you consider that amongst ‘Inarticulate Speech’s eleven tracks you’ll find four instrumentals, that’s a lot of padding. I can only assume with the inclusion of these instrumental numbers, Van was hoping somehow to create a successor to ‘Common One’.

‘Cry For Home’ is a mid-paced soul pop number which appears well written, but loses a lot in delivery. ‘River of Time’ – although far from essential Van – is much better, due to the drum kit having a little bit of oomph behind it and the bass work sounding more live. As you may expect, Van’s delivery on these songs lacks subtlety – drowning out most of the backing harmonies at various points – but quite often, it’s the force of nature that is his love-it-or-hate-it voice which carries this album’s songs, especially when the music is pedestrian. Considering the great session musos who stopped by to lend a hand on albums like ‘Tupelo Honey’, you have to wonder how Morrison got saddled with the bunch of people featured here who sound like they’d be better suited to performing library music for TV wildlife documentaries.

The album’s title track appears in two parts. The first part is an atmospheric instrumental with a piano at the fore. The piano work is simple and is counterbalanced by human voices used as instruments (a technique re-employed at the end of the album, but achieving a far weaker result). The end section of part one features a loud drum sound, which is very welcome, especially considering the subdued role the drums play on most of the songs. The second part brings in Morrison on vocals, but there’s not a great deal to get excited about as, over a gentle, waltzing arrangement he repeats the same three lines (“I’m a soul in wonder” and “I’m just wild about it, I can’t live without it”) between a repetitive refrain of “Inarticulate speech, inarticulate speech of the heart”. There’s a decent organ solo midway, but it’s so low in the mix, you’ll wonder why John Allair bothered playing it at all.

‘Rave On, John Donne’ begins with a spoken vocal, delivered by Van with a typical Belfast brusqueness. The music lulls as Mark Isham’s synth creates a blanket of sound and Chris Michie’s guitar overlays a simple chord structure with a ringing tone. Once again, the eighties production cannot be avoided, but here, it’s very well suited to the overall feel of the track. When Van’s lead vocal begins, it has all the effortless power of his mid-late seventies work. Similarly, the better known ‘Irish Heartbeat’ (covered by Billy Connolly as the theme to his ‘World Tour of Scotland’ travel programme) captures Van in a confident mood, his vocal steeped in a soulful power. His unmistakable tone gives the song an uneasy beauty, which loses none of its appeal despite a thin arrangement and even thinner sounding drum kit. ‘When The Street Only Knew Your Name’ is the album’s most upbeat moment. David Hayes lays down a fabulous funky bassline, although thanks to the eighties production techniques, it sounds unnaturally compressed and almost like a keyboard. Van’s delivery harks back to his early seventies work from ‘Band and Street Choir’ and as such, it’s one of the only times on this album where the band step outside of middling balladry and actually sound like they’re having fun. By the song’s end (as with ‘Rave On, John Donne’ and ‘Irish Heartbeat’), you’ll likely find yourself wondering how much better it certainly would have sounded had Morrison written and recorded it a decade earlier.

With a little more care, the instrumental ‘September Night’ should have been as good as ‘Connswater’. Its majestic keyboard chords could have provided the album with an atmospheric closing number, but that atmosphere is ruined by the use of a wordless vocal. I’m not against the idea of using the voice purely as an instrument – and the female vocals give the track an almost European cinematic quality – but once Morrison’s vocal begins, the atmosphere is quickly broken as he wanders into tuneless abandon.

While it’s easily understood why ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is so disliked, it’s more confusing as to why 1985’s ‘No Guru No Method No Teacher’ is so highly regarded. And what’s more, it’s absolutely bewildering as to why ‘Inarticulate Speech’ is so enjoyable despite it’s thousand faults. Maybe it’s because ‘Rave On, John Donne’, ‘Irish Heartbeat’ and ‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’ could have been classic Van. Sadly though, those good songs have had the life sucked out of them by too many unnatural sounding keyboards and an over-production which makes everything sound way too clinical. In addition, four instrumental numbers is far too many, when you consider that Morrison is best known for his status as a singer-songwriter. Somehow though, especially considering it’s extremely flawed, ‘Inarticulate Speech’ manages to stay more memorable than most of Morrison’s other works throughout the 1980s.

July 2010

“Steve Prestwich: 1954-2011”

It is with sadness I make this post, having just heard about the death of Steve Prestwich. For those of you who don’t know, Steve was best known as being the drummer with Cold Chisel throughout most of their career in the 1970s/80s and subsequent late 90s reunion. Between his work with Cold Chisel, he recorded two solo albums and also worked with The Little River Band.

In January 2011, Steve was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent surgery on January 14th, but passed away two days later.

Cold Chisel are a fabulous band and one that has meant a great deal to me for many years. While their keyboard player Don Walker was their principal songwriter, other band members wrote songs during the band’s career. Steve Prestwich wrote two of the bands hits and contributed to a third – as a tribute to him, I’m posting the videos for those songs.

‘Forever Now’ and ‘When The War Is Over’ were both written by Prestwich and featured on Chisel’s 1982 album ‘Circus Animals’. ‘Flame Trees’ was written by Prestwich/Walker and featured on 1984’s ‘Twentieth Century’.

January 2011

STRAY CATS – Stray Cats

stray catsBack in 1980, aside from a few heavy metal bands, the charts were dominated by effeminate lads with foppish hair and make-up. Visage and Ultravox were riding high with their brands of new romantic electronics, Soft Cell were big news with their Soho synth-pop and seedy lyrics while Adam and the Ants were at the height of their popularity with fun pop songs and dressing-up-box, panto-style theatrics (hard to believe now, but they were very cool at the time). In short, thanks to a new generation of pop stars fixated with David Bowie’s ‘Low’, early Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, pop music had become very androgynous.

Step forward, three guys from Long Island, New York. Stray Cats were unlikely heroes. They championed a brand of no-nonsense fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll which was heavily influenced by Eddie Cochran. At a time when that style wasn’t so popular, they represented something altogether tougher and undeniably masculine. They first made waves at the end of 1980 with their first hit single ‘Runaway Boys’. When their self-titled debut LP (co-produced by Brian Setzer and Rockpile’s Dave Edmunds) appeared in record racks in 1981, it was almost totally out of step with the musical climate.

‘Runaway Boys’ opens the album, and it’s here that Stray Cats put most of their cards on the table. Energetic rockabilly rhythms, fantastic upright basses and a simple but thumping drum part ensure the track shows Stray Cats at their best – these key features play a major part in most of the album’s greatest moments. ‘Rock This Town’ is a perfect example of the band’s style – Brian Setzer’s guitar twang evokes the late fifties and is meticulously played, while Lee Rocker’s upright bass drives the track at a jumping pace, while once again Slim Jim Phantom hammers the drum with a musical heartbeat that’s hard to ignore. For ‘Stray Cat Strut’, things slow to a sleazy groove. This provides a closer look into Setzer’s retro guitar style. He really is in a class of his own, as a couple of great guitar breaks prove.

Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just the hits which are the big draw here. The rock ‘n’ roll twang of ‘Rumble In Brighton’ is suitably menacing; the standard rock ‘n’ roll vibe of ‘Fishnet Stockings’ provides upbeat fun and a cover of Warren Smith’s ‘Ubangi Stomp’(a song written in the mid-fifties, which shows absolutely no understanding of other cultures) makes excellent use of the drums, pounding out a basic rhythm. It’s a little heavy-handed in places but works well – provided, that is, you can put up with its potentially racist tone. ‘Storm The Embassy’ is a political song about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. It’s the only time ‘Stray Cats’ obviously deviates from its classic rock ‘n’ roll style. Slim Jim’s drum sound loses its reverb and Lee Rocker’s bass is warmer. In fact, the whole thing sounds like something more modern, even though it retains a little rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Its political lyric also feels a little out of place up against the other, more fun material.

A cover of Eddie Cochran’s ‘Jeanie, Jeanie Jeanie’ is tackled at full-pace and has been updated for a demanding post-punk audience by making the lyrics edgier with a liberal use of the f-word, but despite that, it’s a fairly faithful rendition of the song. ‘Crawl Up and Die’ slows things down a little once again and sounds like something based around the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme and is suitably sneering. As you’d expect, ‘Wild Saxaphone’ [sic] is a fast workout featuring brass. With the addition of saxophone to Stray Cats’ trademark rock ‘n’ roll, the end result sounds a little more complex than some of the other material. For a wild saxophone, the brass section isn’t quite punchy enough on this number, coming across as “slightly quirky” as opposed to “wild”, but it’s a minor complaint.

‘Stray Cats’ is a cracking debut album (which interestingly never got a US release, despite the band hailing from New York). It may have a couple of moments which are questionable lyrically, but musically it hits the mark nearly every time. The synth-pop music of the early eighties may come in and out of fashion, but it’s full of dated sounds. Stray Cats (the band) sounded timeless back then and they sound the same now and ‘Stray Cats’ (the album) is a great snapshot of their talent.

Watch their 1981 appearance on the German Rockpalast show:
Got Sweet Love On My Mind
Double Talkin Baby
Rumble In Brighton
My One Desire
Ubangi Stomp
Drink That Bottle Down
Storm The Embassy
Stray Cat Strut
Fishnet Stockings
Important Words
Rock This Town
Runaway Boys
Somethin’ Else
Gonna Ball

Watch various other clips from 1981:
The video for ‘Runaway Boys’ here.
‘Stray Cat Strut’ live on US TV here.
‘Runaway Boys’ live on US TV here.
Various clips from Japanese TV here.

March 2010