THE QUIREBOYS – A Bit Of What You Fancy

quireboys

Although the exact date has been forgotten, back in 1990, I heard a half-hour broadcast of a Quireboys live show on BBC Radio 1. It was recorded in November ’89, during the band’s stint supporting Aerosmith. For those thirty minutes, Spike and co pulled out all the stops. Remembering how great that live set had been, I checked out their debut album ‘A Bit of What You Fancy’, only to be initially disappointed.

Time is a funny thing. ‘A Bit of What You Fancy’ still may not be completely representative of The Quireboys I remember from that live broadcast, but in reality, although not perfect, it’s far from being a bad record.

The opening number ‘7 O’clock’ represents the band’s manifesto in four minutes with its bar-room trashiness. Musically, it rests somewhere between a slightly heavy handed version of The Faces and mid-period Rolling Stones. Guy Bailey & Guy Griffin’s three chord R’n’R guitars provide the perfect accessory for Spike’s whiskey-soaked rasp and the piano and harmonica add a much needed flourish. The anthemic ‘Hey You’ follows suit and manages to stay memorable a long time after the album has finished. It’s hardly surprising that between these couple of singles and a lot of touring, The Quireboys managed to gain a substantial fan base of rock fans looking for something retro and familiar.

Surprisingly, those singles are nowhere near as good as a couple of other tracks on the album. ‘Man on the Loose’ takes the tried and tested bar room formula and turns it up a notch, adding gospel styled backing vocals and ‘Whipping Boy’ represents a slower, bluesier band. The latter, in particular, stands up well with its brooding style, making for something altogether less disposable, and again, the female backing vocals are put to good use. The swaggering ‘There She Goes Again’ is timeless with its cocky Faces influence. Good use of a horn section coupled with a memorable (if somewhat simplistic) chorus makes it a standout.

Their Rolling Stones fixation comes to the fore for ‘Misled’, which sounds like a poor imitation of something like ‘It’s Only Rock N Roll’, but sang badly, and the album sags drastically during ‘Sweet Mary Ann’ and ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’. On the latter, it becomes especially obvious that Spike’s vocal style, most of the time, isn’t especially cut out for slower numbers. It occasionally works outside the Faces-style stompers though, since it sound fine on the country-tinged ‘Roses & Rings’; here, Chris Johnstone provides good accompaniment on the piano – an undervalued member, most of his contributions lend this album its long-lasting charm.

Hit ‘n’ miss as it may be, but ‘A Bit of What You Fancy’ is far better than I ever gave it credit for back in 1990. It mightn’t always have the all round perfection of the Black Crowes debut issued at a similar time, but its best moments are a fine example of classic rock and an always welcome reminder of Tommy Vance’s Radio 1 Rock Show…and for that, I’ll always be glad of existence and give it a spin every so often.  It still doesn’t match the brilliance of the Quireboys live shows of the time – as any fan knows, it’s in the live setting they really shine. Now, if only the Beeb would issue that performance from ’89 and their Donington set from 1990 officially, that would be fantastic!

February 2010

HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS – Soulsville

hueylewis

This album of soul covers, containing material originally associated with the classic Stax label, represents the first new recorded works by Huey Lewis and The News since 2001’s ‘Plan B’ album. Interestingly, its UK release came during the same month as the re-release of ‘Back To The Future’ at the cinema – part of me thinks this may not have been a coincidence.

If you take a closer look at Huey Lewis and The News’s back catalogue, amongst the good-time pop-rock belters, you’ll find plenty classic soul music influences – not least of all on tracks like ‘Doing It All For My Baby’, ‘Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do’ and the monster hit ‘Stuck With You’ – so the idea of a soul covers album from these guys feels very natural. With Lewis’s voice as great as it ever was (the dictionary definition of professional performer) there was no doubt as to whether they could pull this off. There aren’t any moments during ‘Soulville’s fourteen cuts where you’d question their choice of song, but naturally, some covers are better suited to The News than others.

The journey through the band’s soul influences begins with a run through of the Wilson Pickett classic ‘Don’t Fight It (Feel It)’. The sound is slightly smoother than that of Pickett’s 1965 single, but the horn section is spot on and Sean Hopper’s organ parts have the necessary amount of retro cool to make them have a classic feel. Lewis takes the song and delivers a very natural performance, resisting temptation to change the vocal in any way. Naturally, it doesn’t match Pickett’s spiky delivery, but it’s a more than worthy cover. During Solomon Burke’s ‘Got To Get You Off My Mind’, Lewis’s vocal is an easy one – a match for the deliveries on his self-written soulful material – but it’s the tight horn section and the laid back drums which recreate most of the old soul sound. The band sounds fantastic on their version of ‘Don’t The Green Grass Fool You’ (originally recorded by Wilson Pickett in 1970) with Stef Burns capturing the smooth jazz influences in the lead guitar parts perfectly and the horns provide a great accompaniment to Bill Gibson’s upfront drums. The sax break is superb and Lewis’s vocals are effortless. John Pierce is the real hero of this number though: listen carefully – amongst all those more obvious attention grabbing elements, his bass runs are incredibly busy.

The much covered ‘Respect Yourself’ appears here with plenty of confidence and a sharp line on the electric piano. While Huey’s delivery is perfect and the backing vocal harmonies add the necessary amount of depth, it feels a little slow. It’s certainly lacking the sassy qualities of The Staple Singers’ classic 1971 version, but thankfully, is it isn’t as heavy handed as Joe Cocker’s slightly shouty take on this classic from 2002. Against the odds, the title cut (originally recorded by Isaac Hayes on the ‘Shaft’ soundtrack) rather suits Huey’s slightly husky tones. The News replicate the laid back musical arrangement of the original the best they’re able, but understandably due to 21st Century recording techniques, the end result sounds shinier than Hayes’s Stax recording. Of particular note here is Bill Gibson’s understated drum work, which does very little until the pre-chorus, at which point, it has a great live sound.

The treatment of Eddie Floyd’s ‘Never Found a Girl’ is a stand out. The smoothness of Floyd’s original cut – heavy on the harmonies and strings – has been given a little extra punch by the News. While still very respectful to the original, the piano part here is presented far higher in the mix; Sean Hopper contributes brilliant stabbing keys here, very complimentary to Huey’s vocal delivery. While the band is in good shape and the arrangement is pretty much note-for-note, a take on Rufus Thomas’s ‘Little Sally Walker’ falls short of the mark. While it could be argued the band sound like they’re having fun (and Lewis himself is relishing every line), that’s part of the problem – this version of ‘Little Sally Walker’ sounds like something Lewis would have delivered as part of his starring role in ‘Duets’, karaoke style. It’s not bad by any means, but it could’ve turned out better, even though it stood little to no chance of being as energetic as Thomas’s original. A version of Joe Tex’s ‘I Want To Do Everything For You’ highlights exactly why a soul covers record is a great vehicle for Huey Lewis and The News. The lead vocal is spot on, made even better by a decent harmony vocal (which although not quite a complete reproduction of the the original, is still a really good stab) and the band are equally on form. Stef Burns gets a brief chance to step away from rhythm guitar work and turn in a couple of quick leads. Even Lewis himself grabs the opportunity to whip out his harmonica for a solo.

Lewis steps down at the album’s close, allowing The News chance to really shine on a rendition of the Mar-Keys number ‘Grab This Thing’. Obviously, being a Mar-Keys track, it’s up to the horns to take front and centre stage – and the guys here are more than up to the task. The sax leads are attention grabbing without becoming aggressive and the accompanying rhythms are hard hitting, befitting of the classic Stax approach. There are a couple of great opportunities missed here though, since Sean Hopper doesn’t get to recreate the organ solo and Stef Burns, likewise, is restricted to rhythm work, choosing not to re-interpret Steve Cropper’s guitar solo. It’s over a minute shorter than the Mar-Key’s version and a tiny bit slower, but these are very minor complaints.

After nearly a decade without new material from Lewis and his News, it would have been so good for them to deliver a disc brimming with new compositions, maybe with a couple of these covers thrown in. But since that wasn’t to be, looking at ‘Soulsville’ for what it offers, it’s a decent record – and one which makes a good companion piece to their 1994 rock ‘n’ roll covers album, ‘Four Chords and Several Years Ago’. Do yourselves a big favour though: if you enjoyed this record, check out the original artists’ recordings of these songs if you haven’t already done so.

October 2010

Posted in pop

EDWARD O’CONNELL – Our Little Secret

oconnell Packaged in sleeve featuring a great homage to Nick Lowe’s solo debut ‘Jesus of Cool’, this release by Edward O’Connell has a sound which is almost timeless. Its songs could have been recorded at any point after the mid-eighties and performed by anyone aged between 25 and 60.

If you’re a fan of Tom Petty, it’s likely you’ll find an instant affinity with this album’s opening number ‘Acres of Diamonds’, since it could have been pulled straight off his ‘Full Moon Fever’ record. Granted, O’Connell may be wearing an influence on his sleeve here, but the end result is expertly delivered. With a crisp sound, all ringing guitars and retro-pop hooks, it’s unlikely that if this fell into the hands of Petty the end result would have sounded any better. ‘I Heard It Go’ features a similar sound, but is slightly more upbeat; it’s catchy chorus and slide guitar part evokes parts of George Harrison’s ‘Cloud 9’ album (again, it’s that Jeff Lynne produced Wilbury sound which begs the comparisons).

A laidback vocal gives ‘Partially Awesome’ an introspective feel and a similar heart-tugging quality to the under-rated Pete Droge. Although a little buried under the many guitar parts, there’s a piano at the core of this song, helping to give it an extra dimension. ‘Happy Black’ has a similar downbeat musical quality, anchored by a rock solid rhythm section. It manages not to be a straight-up repeat of ‘Partially Awesome’ thanks to some great harmony vocals and a great, yet simple, electric piano part. It’s a melancholy number which deserves a place as one of the album’s standouts. ‘Pretty Wasted’ is a key moment for fans of 12-string guitar, as during this track Karl Straub plays with a meticulous Byrds-esque greatness. The song itself is okay too, but isn’t as good as those earlier tracks.

A solid harmony vocal leads ‘Your Ride’s Here’, for a classic (if again, slightly downbeat) pop arrangement, containing elements of Elvis Costello and Enuff Z’Nuff (during their more reflective moments, as heard on material like ‘Time To Let You Go’ from the ‘Strength’ LP). While the lead vocal drifts a little too far into Costello territory and the hook isn’t as big as some of the others featured on the album, this really highlights O’Connell’s gift for penning an uncomplicated pop melody. ‘I Want To Kiss You’ aims for a similar feel, but misses the mark, partly due to a lightweight chorus, but mostly due to the presence of a rather unpleasant alto sax solo…It’s one of the only weaker track here, though – the other being the piano lullaby ‘All My Dreams’, which, although well played, is a little too saccharine for my tastes.

‘With This Ring’ is an upbeat stomper, which combines the energy of early Elvis Costello and a slight hint of John Hiatt. It’s almost certainly the album’s punchiest number, partly due to Jonathan Babu providing the song with a decent backbone behind the drum kit, but mostly because there are five guitarists featured; listen closely – there’s a piano fill thrown in at the end too. It’s amazing to think that an arrangement could feature so much without losing any of its natural feel, or appearing overdone in some way. O’Connell taps into his inner Costello further on ‘We Can Bury You’, a country-tinged number featuring heavily twanged guitar and, again, some rather solid piano hiding in the back. Here, the vocal is over-stretched in a way which would have suited the mighty bespectacled one in the early 80s. While I’m not always a fan of country influenced material, this has more than enough in the way of endearing qualities.

Edward O’Connell may sound like a composite of various other artists, but that doesn’t stop ‘Our Little Secret’ being a great album. Although it gets a little samey in places, its songs are really well crafted – and for an independently released disc, the production values are spot on. If you’re a fan of jangly guitar pop, then you shouldn’t miss this.

October 2010

STEVE HILLAGE – Motivation Radio

steve hillageProbably best known for being the guitarist with Canterbury psych-prog legends Gong in the 1970s, Steve Hillage has had a long and successful career. It’s a great shame that while bands like Genesis and Yes have always been viewed as legends of 70s progressive music (though often derided by the press), Hillage has remained no more than a cult artist – his solo output criminally ignored in comparison.

While his first solo release ‘Fish Rising’ sold quite well due to its coinciding with his time in Gong, Hillage’s second release ‘L’ would be one of his most enduring, since it contains his cover (and arguable the definitive version) of Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’. It’s his third album, however, which I feel best represents Hillage as both a great musician and arranger. Recorded in the US, ‘Motivation Radio’ was produced by Malcolm Cecil – inventor of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), an electronic instrument, briefly popular in the mid 70s. As expected, he appears on the album with his beloved TONTO, but never in any great capacity. (TONTO was the first modular synthesizer, bought to prominence by Stevie Wonder. While it represented a great leap forward for electronic music, it wasn’t especially practical, since it was the size of a static caravan).

With far less of a reliance on the cover material that had been a huge focus on ‘L’, his 1977 release ‘Motivation Radio’ still features Hillage’s signature glissando guitar work at its core, but in terms of construction, it’s a much tighter collection of songs.

Heavily processed guitars open the album with the upbeat ‘Hello Dawn’. Electronic and acoustic drums back Hillage’s multi-tracked vocal as he greets a new day with optimism. A simple message of making the best of the new day – and the future – is coupled with a fantastic arrangement; Hillage’s multi-layered guitars have their signature sound. During the vocal sections they are used as striking punctuation; during the brief instrumental break at the songs close, their chorus of sound dominates. At just under three minutes, its brevity is a complete contrast to the extended jams of most of Hillage’s previous work. For ‘Motivation’, the band opts for a funk groove; with brimming confidence, the music is the perfect match for Hillage’s deliberately positive lyrics. Everything here is musically perfect, with absolutely no padding or improvisational qualities. While Hillage’s simple, driving riff is the dominant force, Miquette Giraudy’s keyboard fills are supportive, Joe Blocker’s drum patterns are superb and Reggie McBride’s bass work shows complexity without losing sight of his anchoring role.

With a tight drum intro which almost rivals Pierre Moerlen’s work on the Gong track ‘Oily Way’, ‘Light In The Sky’ is great from the off. Constructed around a classic 70s riff, Hillage’s band hit a really solid groove. Many years later it’s lyrics about aliens could be viewed with suspicion and Giraudy’s heavily French accented vocal interludes give an air of quirkiness which isn’t always quite so welcome, but musically, it’s absolutely top drawer stuff. (Those in the UK will recognise this as being the theme for the Channel 4 programme ‘The Friday/Sunday Night Project’ with Justin Lee Collins and Alan Carr. I have my suspicions that Collins was responsible for this choice of theme tune).

‘Radio’ has a rather more spacious vibe. Hillage lays down a slightly jazzy guitar line in the intro, even reprising the closing moments of ‘Light In The Sky’ in the process (it would have been better had ‘Light In The Sky’ segued straight into this; it certainly sounds like it was designed that way, despite there being an obvious track break). The rest of the band joins gradually, with Reggie McBride’s bass high in the mix, Joe Blocker’s drums laid back but never losing focus and Giraudy’s blankets of keys hovering somewhere in the back. A brief solo played by Malcolm Cecil on TONTO is very “of the moment” (though far from jarring or awful by any means), before Hillage’s lead vocal drifts in. With a more relaxed pace than the preceding material, ‘Radio’ has an ethereal quality far more in keeping with some of his earlier work from ‘L’; though that’s not to say it’s out of place on this album by any means. For fans of Hillage’s sweeping guitar solos, it’s certainly a high point. Likewise, his playing is exemplary during the instrumental number, ‘Octave Doctors’. There’s a typical spaciousness here and while the rest of the band turn in decent performances, Hillage really shines with plenty of glissando and vibrato. Possessing a tone more beautiful and distinctive than so many guitarists, he deserves as much worldwide recognition as Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck for his work.

The ballad ‘Wait One Moment’ isn’t as instant as some of the album’s material, but repeated listens show it to have some brilliant qualities. Hillage’s soft vocal is very natural sounding against McBride’s unassuming bass runs and Blocker’s drums, which here adopt a style comparable to those of Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason (whom would work with Hillage the following year on the album ‘Green’). As is often the case though, it’s Hillage’s masterful soloing which provides the tracks greatest moments, his soaring and other-worldly approach not falling far short of genius.

‘Saucer Surfing’ provides the album with its most spiky arrangement. Hillage delivers an overly wordy verse (it’s lines all too long on purpose – each one scanning a line and a half or thereabouts), but even so it works, giving the piece an edginess and sense of urgency. Hillage’s riff is a simple one, based completely in the straight-up rock mould and combined with the bass and drums, this could have been just as easily played in the power trio format. Granted, once again, the lyrics regarding space exploration and “reality gypsies, surfing the vibrations with our minds” are certainly a product of their time, but I’m certain Hillage meant no harm and it all seems very heartfelt, even if the intentions of these reality gypsies seem really far removed from reality as we know it.
‘Searching For The Spark’ features a (then) futuristic base laid down by Giraudy and Cecil’s synth work. While the guitar solos here are superb, there’s not much else here of note. With the synths and TONTO dominating, Blocker’s drum work is aggressive in an attempt to create a balance between progressive rock and electronica and Hillage’s vocal sections aren’t so tuneful.

A cover of ‘Not Fade Away’ closes the album. Here, the more traditional, punchy three chord arrangement is represented by a loose groove, driven by Blocker’s drums, overlaid with trippy keyboard sounds courtesy of Giraudy, coupled with some quirkier sounds by Cecil on TONTO. Hillage’s vocal sounds a little uneasy here, but he makes up for it with some stunning guitar playing during the intro, largely based around the riff he’d written for Gong’s ‘I Never Glid Before’. It’s one of the album’s weaker numbers, not quite living up to the promise of that opening riff, but regardless of this, it was chosen as the album’s single release.

Hillage’s next album ‘Green’ has a similar feel in places, though has a tendency to wander into the kind of meandering present on ‘L’. However, it would be his 1979 outing ‘Rainbow Dome Musick’ which would have the biggest impact on Hillage’s post-Gong career. Containing two twenty minute suites of electronic music performed by Hillage and Giraudy (one for each side of the original LP), the album was way ahead of its time. Although under-appreciated at the time of release, it gained a new audience years later. Legend has it that during his time out of the spotlight, Hillage wandered into the chill out room at London club Heaven to hear parts of the album being played by Alex Petterson of The Orb during his DJ set. This led to Hillage not only collaborating with The Orb, but also forming his own ambient electronic act, System 7 (which, like ‘Rainbow Dome Musick, was a duo with his wife and long-term musical collaborator, Miquette Giraudy). Hillage had gone from being a cult 70s artist to being one who had not only relevance, but also made a huge impact on the 90s chill out/ambient electronic scene.

If you’ve not checked out any of Hillage’s albums and have a liking for great guitar playing and hippie ideals, then the first four each have their strong moments. While ‘Fish Rising’, ‘L’ and ‘Green’ can feel a little demanding on the listener at times, ‘Motivation Radio’ rarely wanders into musical self-indulgence, making it an unheralded classic among Hillage’s recorded works.

October 2010

FIRE – Ignite

ignite

Not to be confused with the similarly named freakbeat band of the sixties (best known for their song ‘Father’s Name Is Dad’), Fire are five-piece melodic metal band from Malta. This debut album was originally issued independently in 2006 and available in Malta only. It was picked up four years later by the German label Avenue of Allies and given a proper international release.

The opening number ‘Get Out of My Way’ may have an intro with slabs of organ, giving the impression we’re heading into something retro in a 70s way, but once the main riff kicks in, there’s no doubt where Fire’s musical loyalties lie. For these Maltese hard rockers, there’s a clear love for classic sounding 80s melodic metal. The track packs a decent punch, with good performances from each of the band members (the organ very much a red herring, since no keyboard player is credited), but it’s the guitar solos which really grab the attention. Both Robert Longo and Joe Vella are accomplished players and here (as throughout the rest of this album) their old-school chops really give Fire an edge. Over a heavy bassline, coupled with great harmony vocals,‘Make Believe’ recounts those days of bedroom air guitar. Vocalist Kenneth Cajella sings “I’ve seen you on television / I heard you on your CDs / I tried all your guitar solos / It’s you I wanted to be”. Sure, it may be cheesy, but Fire delivers their brand of old-school hard rock with complete conviction.

‘Home and Dry’ has a groove which is slightly funky (though without stepping outside Fire’s old-school confines) and one of the album’s biggest choruses. Another solid performance from the rhythm section gives the song a strong base, but it’s the big hooky chorus (with plenty of harmonies) which makes it a track which deserves repeated listens. Cajella’s lead vocal is probably the album’s strongest, though interestingly, both guitarists are far more subdued here; they obviously recognised the hook was strong enough to stand on its own.

Normally, any soft rock or melodic metal songs with the word rock in the title would bring me out in a rash. Against the odds, Fire delivers something listenable with ‘Taste This (Rock ‘n’ Roll)’. Taking a step back from their more metallic tendencies for some old-style rock, the band adopts a more 70s rock aspect and tops a swaggering performance and half-memorable chorus with a slide guitar solo and organ work. ‘Keep On Moving’ is another chorus driven number which represents Fire playing to their strengths; Laurence Baldacchino’s drum work is heavy without becoming heavy-handed, Cajella’s vocals are confident and, although not the song’s main focus, Longo and Vella chip in with some twin lead harmonies. While ‘Goin’ Down’ has lyrics tackle that well-worn topic of drug addiction and its chorus isn’t as strong as it could have been, musically, it’s another of this album’s stronger numbers. There are some great harmonies throughout, which combined with Fire’s unshakable musicianship makes for a great listen. The bass and guitar parts both bring depth and warmth and Cajella’s lead vocal is self-assured.

You’ll get no such rock-solid simplicity from ‘Conspiracy Theory’ – an absolutely kitchen-sink affair with hugely pompous solos. A thunderous drum intro paves the way for a fast 80s metal riff (given extra oomph by the use of a really well placed twin lead). It sounds as if that’s going to be all that’s on offer until mid way, when fast 70s style keyboard work adds a fair amount of grandiosity which escalates further when Robert Longo and Joe Vella break into some neo-classical widdling backed by a keyboard sample of a choir. It may be overblown, but it’s fun.

The Avenue of Allies reissue contains two bonus tracks: ‘Miss You This Christmas’ (originally released as a single in 2007) and a cover of the Bryan Adams classic ‘Run To You’ (recorded specially for the 2010 re-release of ‘Ignite’).

While it may not be fashionable, I’ve always thought ‘Run To You’ was one of the great 80s rock singles (When on form, Bryan Adams could be great, y’know…it’s only post ‘Robin Hood’ that his output became mostly rubbish). The idea of someone covering ‘Run To You’ didn’t sit well with me – and especially not a metal-edged band; oddly though, the end result is okay. The song gets treated respectfully. Naturally, Fire crank up the main riff in the process, but still manage to retain most of the song’s melody and radio-friendly spirit. As for the Christmas single, I’m less fond. It has a great twin lead and decent enough melody, but its throwaway festive nature means I’m not likely to listen to it that often (especially the case outside of the festive period).

Since the original release of ‘Ignite’, the band has released a second album and has enjoyed increasing popularity in Europe. While they bring nothing new to their chosen genre (and their style of melodic metal is likely only going to be of appeal to the melodic metal die-hards), given their level of musicianship, any success they may have is very much deserved.

September 2010