JEFF LYNNE – Armchair Theatre

In 1987, Electric Light Orchestra head honcho Jeff Lynne sat in as producer with ex-Beatle George Harrison on his hugely popular ‘Cloud Nine’ album.  The combination of Harrison’s gift for pop melodies and Lynne’s very distinctive production sound (often revolving around filtered harmony vocals and a gated snare drum leading to a very compressed sound) led to the album being a multi-million seller.  The sessions also gave birth to the greatest supergroup ever – The Traveling Wilburys, comprising Harrison, Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.  While some people overlook Lynne’s contribution to the group, it is his studio expertise which, perhaps, brings the most to what we now think of as the “Wilbury sound”.

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JEFF WAYNE – Musical Version Of “The War Of The Worlds”: The New Generation

Jeff Wayne’s 1978 ‘Musical Version of The War of the Worlds’ is considered by many to be one of the finest records of its era.  Whether you’re either old enough to have  purchased it yourself at the time of release, or you’ve grown up with parents who enjoyed it, it’s an album which holds a special place for many. Even with it’s reliance on synthesised orchestras, its performances have survived the passing decades very well indeed.  Almost thirty five years on – after various re-issues of the original album and love them/hate them stage productions – comes this completely re-recorded version of his masterpiece, potentially tainting his legacy even further.

First off, it has to be said, Liam Neeson has none of the presence of Richard Burton.  In places, he doesn’t even have the same level of command that Anthony Hopkins bought to Wayne’s much maligned ‘Spartacus’.  He often seems like his narrative should be a louder.  Very little consideration has been given to the fact that his slightly gruff, slightly cracked voice – while a great speaking voice – doesn’t always have quite enough bottom end to carry itself against the kitchen-sink approach of the musical arrangements – and some rather aggressive synthesizers.

Since this would have been a perfect opportunity to do so, it’s a shame Wayne didn’t actually take time out to hire a real orchestra.  Within a few bars of ‘The Eve of The War’, the old-fashioned synths – if anything – sound even more synthetic than they did in the late 70s.  The funkiness of the arrangement is a touch less disco, but the relative danceability is still there, albeit in the form of programmed beats which would have sounded contemporary some twenty years before this recording was made.  All keyboard embellishments are sharper than before, but also horribly dated, while the “chances of anything” vocal lines appear terribly filtered.  Despite the faults, ‘Eve of the War’ is still an enjoyable tune, though it’s hugely likely that – for most people – any enjoyment only comes from having so many vivid memories associated with the original recording.

The rest of the album follows in a similar fashion – familiar, yet inferior, with musical arrangements that can no longer be labelled as being “of their time”, now just synthetic and horribly dated.  The bass on ‘Horsell Common and The Heat Ray’ is big, but oddly unsettling, but not in the cool way of its predecessor, but the guitar parts and drum parts have a stronger presence and welcome crispness – one of the few times this recording reaches anything like it’s real potential.  An over-reliance on really ugly synths, kills ‘The Artilleryman & The Fighting Machine’; attempts at cranking up the guitars in response doesn’t actually build tension as much as make the whole thing a little overbearing.

Closing the first half, the album’s two best songs – ‘Forever Autumn’ and ‘Thunderchild’ – are particularly nasty.  Justin Hayward’s reading of ‘Forever Autumn’ stands as one of the great 70s ballads and a watershed recording for the Moody Blues man.  Gary Barlow brings no emotion to the ‘New Generation’ recording: it’s not necessarily GB’s fault; he won’t have chosen to have his voice smoothed out/filtered in post-production.  During the track’s second half, Wayne crushes any hope of the track getting better as he instigates a programmed drum loop, adding an unwarranted clunky, rhythm track, thus adding slight dance elements where unnecessary, as if he’s pre-empting any future remixes.  For ‘Thunderchild’, singer-songwriter Alex Clare takes the reign for the album’s most rock-driven outing and tackles it with all the power of a wet lettuce, his thin vocal line nearly as weightless as the horrid synths which insist on cutting through anything half-decent.

Thankfully, the wandering ambient soundscapes of ‘The Red Weed (part 1)’ have not been subjected to any extra drums or anything to detract from music’s other-worldliness.  The synths that sound like flutes are almost identical to their 1978 counterpart, while a few others are a touch more gurgly (while not especially a necessary change, at least it’s one which fits the mood).  Most striking during these seven minutes are the moments of piano which cut through in a near avant-garde fashion; almost jazz like, they appear fleetingly, rattle the listener and then disappear, like something rising from the acres and acres of thick martian sludge.  ‘The Red Weed (part 2)’ is far less fortunate, having had its melodies beefed up and subjected to something akin to a Ben Liebrand remix, circa 1990.

As before, between the two encounters with the weed, ‘The Spirit of Man’ attempts to highlight the human struggle against the invaders.  In 1978, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott gave the original album one of its strongest performances.  Do we get a rock icon here to fill his unfillable shoes?  No.  Step forward rapper/r ‘n’ b performer Maverick Sabre…  A man who manages to sing every line with such a reggae affectation that it’s almost impossible to make out the words in places, it’s a good job you all know them already.  Taking the thin-voiced (and over-rated) Julie Covington’s place as the pleading wife is soul diva Joss Stone – who unlike most of the performers here does her best with the material and delivers something she can at least be half proud of.  Kaiser Chiefs man Ricky Wilson’s faux cockney antics sound trite on ‘Brave New World’, a performance that has none of the (necessary) fine balance between fear and bravado that David Essex bought to the table.  There’s nothing else to add here except it (once again) suffers from a few unnecessary early nineties style beats…all topped with more questionable synths, some of which sound like Jarre cast-offs.

Between the martians yelling ‘ULLA!” and Richard Burton’s deep booming voice, the ‘Dead London’ climax gave children sleepless nights in the 70s and 80s.  There’s a unsettling nature here, but Neeson just doesn’t cut it…while the martians sound even more like a man yelling through a vocoder than ever before!  …And yet, when the martian voices cease, the few seconds of silence are genuinely chilling.  Like the preceding material, the moments of greatness are there, but so, so fleeting.  [Again, Why were we not treated to the presence of a real orchestra on these recordings? It would have at least given something ranging between awful and average a bit more gravitas].

On the one hand, it’s Wayne’s musical creation to twist and tweak how he sees fit, but on the other, other than to eek a few more quid out of a successful concept, this has no real purpose. It’s like “Jeff Wayne’s Karaoke Version of The War of The Worlds: The New Generation”.

For those who’ve never heard the original LP, the dated synth sounds here will possibly be too ugly for words, while for everyone else, there’s little to nothing here that holds a candle to its earlier counterpart.  ‘The New Generation’ is not awful, but in a few places it comes  pretty close.  If you’ve bought it, do the decent thing: listen to it out of politeness, maybe even some misdirected sense of duty, then file it next to your ‘Star Wars’ prequels and watch it gather dust.

November 2012

Posted in pop

MADNESS – Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da

In the 80s, Madness put out a string of great albums. Moving effortlessly from ska based tunes to their own very distinct brand of bass and piano driven pop, they barely put a foot wrong in their formative years [comedy asian voices on 1982’s ‘Rise & Fall’, coupled with Mike Barson’s blacking up on that album’s sleeve being about the only wrongdoing prior to 1985].  Various reunions after 1992 have yielded reasonable pop music, with 2009’s ‘Liberty of Norton Folgate’ being the best of an average bunch, though little from the post-80s recordings resemble Madness at their best.

The band’s tenth album, the appallingly named ‘Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da’, continues Suggs and company’s ongoing spiral into mediocrity.  Nothing here is as embarrassing as the band’s 90’s woeful comeback hit ‘Lovestruck’, but – aside from two songs – very little here is particularly inspiring.  At best, there are glimmers greatness manifesting in an unmistakable Barson tack piano or a Mark Bedford bassline (though most of their playing pales in comparison to formative years).  For the most part, though, on this selection of “sophisticated” pop tunes, Madness sound like they’re going the motions with Graham “Suggs” MacPherson’s talk-based singing sounding incredibly half arsed on a good proportion of the material.

The album’s clear stand out ‘Death of a Rude Boy’ has a strong reggae base, it’s mid paced grooves and dark atmosphere tipping the hat to the Specials’ #1 hit ‘Ghost Town’ (something hammered home by a spooky harmonica sound).  While the chorus is a one liner, the band pull the best from it via some mildly sinister hamony vocals intercut by enjoyable tinkling from Barso’s tack-piano.  Also enjoyable, ‘How Can I Tell You’ features all the hallmarks of great Madness tunes past – upfront bass, good use of brass, a simple hook punctuating some faintly silly lyrics – delivered with relative enthusiasm.  It’s a tune which should connect with long-term fans while being quirky enough to attract the casual ‘greatest hits’ owner.

Beyond that, there’s nothing else genuinely exciting to be heard.  The jaunty sounding ‘Misery’ and the Smythe-penned ‘So Alive’ both utilise unashamed ska rhythms, but rather than having the ferocity of a 2-Tone recording, their near mid-pace is more of the traditional Blue Beat variety.  There’s nothing wrong with that particularly, but it only really makes these tunes a small step up from something from Suggs’s ‘Lone Ranger’ solo album.  Close your eyes and it’s not even that hard to imagine him contributing ‘So Alive’ to a Jools Holland & Friends album.  It’s lightweight and undemanding – and possibly enjoyable for some, yes – but classic Madness it ain’t.  When ‘So Alive’ is potentially one of the best tracks that ‘Oui Oui’ has to offer, that’s rather worrying.

On ‘The Rise and Fall’ and ‘Keep Moving’ (released in 1982 and 1984 respectively) Madness proved that beyond the ska roots with which they were often labelled, they were a band also more than capable at classy and distinctive pop arrangements.  Three decades down the line, it seems they don’t always remember whichever magical formula they used in creating those albums.  Dipping into pop-ish territory, the Woodgate composition ‘Leon’ bristles along happily driven by a tack piano, unwavering bass line and a few more guitars than Madness ever employed previously.  It’s sunny vibe and reasonable chorus makes for a good enough pop tune, but even with these solid foundations, it doesn’t manage to ignite any genuine sparks.  The bouncy ‘Circus Freaks’ offers more sax than most of these tunes, but even then, Lee Thompson doesn’t contribute anything memorable; it’s Barson who (as is often the case on these songs) brings most to the table, whether it’s via a hard struck piano or carny-esque organ swirls.  As for the song itself, it’s easy to forget once it has ended.

The Northern Soul influence throughout ‘My Girl 2’ provides a strong musical base, but even that isn’t used to its full potential.  Over the top, Suggs trots out a bunch of lightweight lyrics with no staying power and even Barson offers a rare misfire – an ugly synth solo.  Thommo’s sax is possibly the only thing which stands out – and even that’s underused.  Still, even ‘MG2’ worst features fare better than anything on ‘La Luna’, a horrible mariachi inspired tune that’s mere muzak in comparison to its nearest equivalent – the lovely ‘Return of The Las Palmas 7’.

Strongly linking these largely uninteresting ditties  with their vibrant heyday, Madness drop in a few very familiar musical motifs from time to time, such as parts of ‘Embarrassment’ during the vocal and sax parts of ‘Never Knew Your Name’, ‘Kitchen Floor’s shameless ‘My Girl’ intro and definite ‘Mr Speaker’ tones from Barson during ‘Small World’.  In fairness, that’s probably to be expected from a band who actually have no striking new ideas left to give, but smug self-reference really doesn’t make any of these songs any better.

‘Death of a Rude Boy’ proves that Madness can still cut it when they try, but on most of ‘Oui Oui’, they’re just going through the motions.  On ‘Circus Freaks’, Suggs asks “why should anybody care?”, and sadly, it’s unlikely that anyone but the most dyed in the wool fan actually will beyond a few spins of this disc.

November 2012

Posted in pop

JUSTIN KLINE – Cabin Fever Songs

After releasing two solo EPs dedicated to multi-layered, sun-filled power pop, followed by a third outing of alternative rock (with his band Origami Hologram),  singer-songwriter Justin Kline takes a different tack yet again for his first full length release.

‘Cabin Fever Songs’ is a stripped down affair.  Recorded entirely by Kline alone at home, these thirteen songs feature voice and acoustic guitar, sometimes bolstered by bass and occasional keyboards.  The songs sometimes come from a much darker place.  Where previously Kline was happy to indulge his listeners in a world of candyfloss brilliance, these songs rely on sheer honesty and heartfelt lyrical content far more frequently than before. These are songs the artist felt he just had to write: deeply personal songs, which given the relatively lo-fi recording techniques, can sometimes feel a little bleak.  Stripped of all the bells and whistles which made his previous recordings so vibrant, it’s much easier with ‘Cabin Fever Songs’ to get a handle on what makes Kline’s songs work…or in some cases, not.

‘Nighttime Girl’ has all the hallmarks of Kline’s earlier brilliance, though in this sparser setting, it exposes how simple his songs can be.  Clean acoustic chords back a voice that occasionally sounds a little sugary for such an earnest recording, while a bassline marks time, never really breaking beyond its two note march.  A world of “oohs and ah’s” flesh things out adequately – and in all honesty, are very much needed.  ‘Resurrect With Me’, if anything, is even more simple, relying on a one line hook and not the most interesting of tunes.  The bass’s marching approach returns for ‘Sunday Night Blues’ a three-chord pop song which showcases Kline’s previous gift for a hook, even though this bedroom recording doesn’t do such a potentially great song justice.

‘Your Mystery’ is one of a few numbers where Kline tackles something truly worthy of standing alongside his previous work. Here, a quirky keyboard tune (sounding slightly distorted and off-key) tops a much busier acoustic riff.  Even without full band backing, Kline’s multi-tracked vocal is a ray of sunshine, while a more staccato approach on a hooky chorus allows his previous brilliance to come bursting through.  The woozy ‘His Knives’ works an unfussy melody and riff around a shiny sounding vocal to create something enjoyably intimate – one of a few tracks where the lack of drums isn’t quite as obvious – while on ‘I Already Do’, Kline turns an enjoyable intimacy on its head and unnerves with a truly bleak lyric.  The one-time purveyor of sunshine pop allows a look into his darker side via lyrics such as “there is no way you can act, to expose the life I lack” and “I was marked when I was born and cursed to always mourn / you can’t make me want to die, more than I already do”.  While he admits that these songs were created during a particularly troubled period, it is unlikely anyone familiar with Justin’s earlier releases expected anything quite so cutting.

The relationship once explored in ‘Triangle’s ‘Alison, We Cannot Be Friends’ is revisited and explored from a different viewpoint on a particular high point, ‘Alison, I’m Here’.  Where as previously Kline was adamant that he and the Alison in question had no more to give each other, on the slightly wistful acoustic sequel, he reaches out to the imagined heroine.  A gorgeous finger-picked guitar has a slight McCartney-esque approach and is impeccably delivered, but it’s this songs bittersweet melody and dual vocal which gives it a most enjoyable quality.  It’s easy to imagine both songs bookending a compilation of Kline’s best work, should such a release ever appear.   Just as enjoyable, the jangly ‘Carol Lynn’ is classic Kline: with an upbeat vocal and buoyant melody, this number is a great acoustic pop workout, underpinned by a ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ inspired mellotron accompaniment.  Looking beyond the sugary, happy melodies, Kline takes on the role of untrustworthy narrator, delivering the song’s brilliant kick in the teeth via a lyric that forewarns of Carol Ann’s bad streak.

Although the songs are deeply personal and rather candid, ‘Cabin Fever Songs’ is an underwhelming beast at times.  If you’re a listener who values tunes over lyrical content, the relative lack of variety within this album may become quickly apparent…and it probably wasn’t meant for you anyway.  Long standing fans may find some of the songs are in danger of sounding a little unfinished, but if this is the case, don’t worry too much; as Kline says himself of ‘Cabin Fever Songs’: “It might not be for everyone…it may even be a letdown to some”.

If after a few plays you’re still listening, feeling there’s something here, but still finding yourself looking for that moment where everything clicks, try thinking of this as a collection of songs instead of a fully formed “album”.  At first, avoid listening from end to end:  dip in and out and it works far better.  If, after that, you’re still not convinced, just remember one thing:  Justin doesn’t necessarily care if we like these songs or not, they just needed to shared.  Sharing one’s art can be a wobbly experience, but the stark honesty and cathartic edge at the heart of these ‘Cabin Fever Songs’ may appeal to some.

Listen via the widget below and send Justin a few bucks if you can.

August 2012

BELMONT LIGHTS – Telegraphs EP

‘Telegraphs’ is the debut EP by alternative pop/rock band Belmont Lights, although strictly speaking, it’s the band’s third record, as they’ve previously released two other EPs in 2010-11 under the name The Pennant.  Since “The Pennant” was unlikely to have been in homage to British TV director Pennant Roberts, Belmont Lights is a change for the better.  It sounds sunnier, more American and, well, just more like a band name.

It doesn’t matter what a band is actually called, of course. The real test is in the music.  Here, the shiny vocal pushes things rather more toward the pop market – as does the band’s boyish appearance – but even so, Belmont Lights have a couple of enjoyable tunes up their collective sleeves.

Things start out rather well with lead single ‘Halfway’, as Belmont Lights tap into something inspired by the poppier end of the piano rock movement.  During its intro, the pianos lay down a great melody, before frontman Isiah Blas starts to sing.  With a strongish (yet slightly filtered) vocal, he carries a reasonable tune, before a simple drum line carries the bulk of the tune’s weight.  What gradually unfolds is something that sounds as if it has the makings of a radio hit: a reasonable hook, a timeless whoah and a crowd-pleasing vibe pulls together the better elements of bands such as Fun. and The Fray.  Slightly tougher, ‘Young & A Memory’ adds ringing guitars to the overall mix, while retaining most of the elements which made ‘Halfway’ enjoyable.  The pianos take more of a back seat, so the guitar-led moments show a slightly different aspect to the Belmont Lights sound. Once again, though, huge whoahs are on hand to ensure this tune has a relatively memorable hook.

Despite the first couple of tracks showing promise in an adult pop sense, ‘Telegraph’ soon runs out of steam.  The weakest number, ‘Don’t Touch’ is a very vocal led piece, which utilises a world of electronic beats and vocal effects.  No amount of mid-paced moody beats and studio trickery escapes the fact that this sounds like a boy band track in a very thin disguise, while ‘Let Me’ represents the kind of empty, thoughtless pop that Maroon 5 would turn into a worldwide hit.  A little better, ‘Battle’ has touches of The Killers in its approach, with even more beats and vocal choirs befitting of 30 Seconds To Mars making up at least half of the track’s base.  While this is generally okay, it is seldom any more than that, and Belmont Lights have already proven they are capable of far better.

Some people enjoy music as a sunny backdrop and never ask to be challenged by it and that’s fine – those people will probably love this.  Based on the first two numbers, Belmont Lights are not without reasonable song-writing chops, but for the more discerning listener, most of this EP just doesn’t reach its full potential.

September 2012