Gary Steel is slowly compiling all his album reviews in one place. This is a work in progress, or what we call a “live document”. Today is the letter ‘G’.
Gang Of Four is British, not Chinese: that’s official. They are socialists. Not that it makes a lot of difference. Gang Of Four is a group of British musicians who, along with others such as Pil and The Cure, plays the most stimulating, important sounds currently to be heard.
Their debut album, Entertainment! – available in NZ a mere 10 months after its release in England – is nothing short of phenomenal. The lyrics, all clearly enunciated by vocalist Jon King, are at the least provocative and often thought-provokingly serious.
In ‘Naturals Not In It’ and ‘At Home He’s A Tourist’, they examine the new age of leisure, and ‘Contract’ rails against marriage. ‘Anthrax’, the grand finale, uses Hendrix-like guitar feedback to drive its point (“Love will get you like a case of Anthrax”) home.
‘Five-Forty-Five’ is a frightening anti-TV tirade: “Watch new blood on the 18-inch screen, the corpse is the new personality.”
The music reflects the band’s collectivist ideals in as much as each instrument has an equally important role to play. In an effort to avoid established rock sounds and cliches, they have created something new, though not entirely devoid of influence. Andy Gill’s clean, jagged guitar is r’n’b derived, and the music packs the thwack of Beefheart’s Magic Band in its better moments.
The rhythm occasionally resorts to a form of mutated disco, while the sound itself is layered in a form comparable with Jamaican dub.
There are apparent contradictions between their ideals and reality, typified by ‘At Home He’s A Tourist’ where they recount: “She said she was ambitious, so she accepts the process… two steps forward, six steps back, six steps back.”
Surely Gang Of Four accepted “the process” by signing with a multinational record company. But the contradiction does little to detract from the almost faultless, powerful music on Entertainment!
Praise must also go to EMI New Zealand, for the excellent pressing and packaging of this album. 9/10
Entertainment! set a demanding precedent. A phenomenal debut, it shone with creative lustre and came complete with an intelligent philosophy. The sentiment running throughout the album was revolutionary within the rock context and the musical ideas interesting, yet it was very accessible.
Despite EMI’s initial reluctance to release the first album in NZ, it sold briskly. The great punching rhythms proved compelling to intellectuals and adolescent headbangers alike. How sad it is, then, that the long-time coming Solid Gold smells like last year’s thing.
The biggest disappointment is in the mix. The sound is decidedly murky, where the first album was cutting and clear. There’s a general lack of direction, music which repeats itself to death, and lyrics which lack the necessary motivation and purpose.
The only number with immediate lyrical impact is ‘In The Ditch’ with its repeated line of “Macho music/The beat goes on/Head down to the floor…” But it’s totally resigned. Where’s the constructive criticism, the vitriol? This is helplessness.
The music, as on the first album, is a mutated punk-funk, this time with r’n’b roots less in evidence. But where Entertainment! was full of interesting syncopations, Solid Gold is dull and ponderous. ‘Why Theory?’ and ‘If I Could Keep It For Myself’ emulate some of the more unsuccessfully ambitious moments on their debut.
The best thing here is ‘Cheeseburger’. Though I’m not altogether sure of the lyrical content, the music itself is quite compelling. Here they sound interested, even inspired. The rhythm is still bass-heavy, but the song is less down, less ominous.
Also excellent is an unfortunately remixed version of the 12-inch single ‘What We All Want’, a great jarring dance fling. The vocals are uniformly (awfully) shared. They’re mixed upfront, so that their blandness is apparent and the inner symmetry of the music is disguised. Pieces that accent this disquieting tendency include ‘The Republic’ and ‘A Hole In The Wallet’.
Yeah, I was stunned by the first LP and this is a terrible disappointment. Gang Of Four obviously need to spread their wings and take a rest, or they’re in danger of creating their own stifling status quo. 6/10
Nov 1981/In Touch
After The Carnival is my pick for NZ album of the year to date. It’s a breakthrough in the recording sense, as the sound is full, rich and clear. The LP was recorded at Auckland’s Harlequin Studio and mastered in Sydney. Gash, formerly of the much-missed Waves, has made a richly-textured, largely acoustic musical hybrid of the folk and jazz idioms that seems unforced and entirely natural. There’s a lovely, graceful balance between all the instruments which is a sheer pleasure to the ear. The mix of material is eclectic but it works. From the Waves-like folk of ‘Corporate Copout’ to the exotic instrumentation of ‘Alhambra’ is quite a distance for Gash to travel, but it’s attained with no struggle. The only (minor) complaint is in the lyric department. If Gash wants to woo a younger audience, he’ll have to watch those well-meaning but rather banal lyrics (‘Politicians’, for example). Nevertheless, After The Carnival is a surprising and absolutely world-class album. 7/10
The droll, resigned voice and sluggish, juicy guitar of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour is immediately recognisable. On this second ‘solo’ album – wherein he receives musical assistance from a veritable who’s who of shaggy ‘60s/’70s warhorses – the listener could often be mistaken for thinking she was listening to the Floyd itself, if it weren’t for Bob Ezrin’s apple pie American production touches.
The songs, when they don’t sound like outtakes from Dark Side Of The Moon, benefit from many nice touches, nice riffs, nice melodies and thoughtful lyrics.
Trouble is, they all sound like songs – and bits of songs – you’ve heard before. The single, ‘Blue Light’, is the spitting image of a song I cannot quite put my finger on. ‘Murder’ is more early Dylan than Dylan on its intro, though the addition of fretless bass destroys that comparison. ‘Love On The Air’ has a chorus which could be ‘Too Young To Be Married’. ‘Cruise’ – a somewhat ambiguous weapons commentary – is also tantalisingly familiar. ‘Let’s Get Metaphysical’ is the bonus instrumental, in which Gilmour pays unwitting homage to Terje Rypdal but comes out sounding more like Hank Marvin. My favourite is the final number, ‘Near The End’, which is pure Syd Barrett.
By no means a poor album, it is unfortunate however that About Face is a highly plagiaristic exercise, knowingly or not. 6/10
This album catches Bristol’s Glaxo Babies at a formative stage – it’s a compilation of unreleased material recorded between December 1978 and June 1979.
The band has since gone through personnel changes, released several singles and the idiosyncratic album Nine Months To The Disco. These, however, are not available in NZ.
Put Me On The Guest List is what a compilation album should be but seldom is: excellent material which is elsewhere unavailable, and a valuable primer for their (soon to be released here?) later material. The music here is comparatively rough, but the sound has that instant appeal of say, Gang Of Four’s Entertainment! Album. Investigate. 7/10
An EP that finds Goblin Mix stumbling into various musical mismatchings and occasionally finding their strengths.
The Bats and Sneaky Feelings rolled into one (with additional violin), Goblin Mix manages that amiable strum, a good-natured bit of folk, angst and rock that make those two bands so irresistible.
Goblin Mix are likeable, but their failings – as displayed on both ‘Time Away’ and ‘The Unusual Wish’ – are going to have to be recognised before they can aspire to greatness. 6/10
Frannie Golde – Frannie (Portrait)
Golde’s debut is professionally produced but unexciting fare. 4/10
Many people have quietly held high hopes for this album. The Go-Betweens have become another critically acclaimed Australian export to Britain and currently ride high on the independent charts over there.
Expecting something patently ‘weird and wonderful’, it was a pleasant surprise to find the hallmark of Before Hollywood was its masterful sense of understatement, the subtle spaces and quietly impressive dynamics.
The Go-Betweens don’t aim at stunning originality. They attain it by choosing credible mentors – obvious influences being early Dylan and Tom Verlaine. Like Verlaine, this music takes effort and finally reaches home base only by osmosis through continual listening. This review is still at the early listening stage. Before Hollywood is an interesting record. Can’t say more than that. 7/10
April 1982/In Touch
This album came out at the tail-end of 1981. It’s hardly had a mention, and In Touch didn’t review it at the time because we weren’t around. Pity, because The Gordons is one of the best albums to come out of this country.
You’ve probably read the live reviews of The Gordons, if you haven’t actually witnessed the phenomenon for yourself. Vinyl could never quite do justice to the sheer noise and the twisted harmonics that come out of that noise. Nevertheless, this long player is a fair representation of this extreme, original three-piece from Christchurch.
The songs that their fans will know are not to be found here. New material is the menu, and the material is given plenty of room to move, unlike the quick short bursts of songs the fans know.
Initially, it’s a disappointment, but worth some effort. The Gordons are just as noisy here, but they employ a subtlety to go with it that’s all new. ‘Spick And Span’ is in the old style, but longer. The changes are evident soon though: vocals that aren’t shouted on ‘Right On Time’, a real mood created with a classic riff on ‘Growing Up’, the crushing helter-skelter sadness of ‘Laughing Now’.
The Gordons are hard on the ears. But if you’re up to it they’re playing some of the most individual, innovative music around. There is no way you can describe their music adequately, and that in itself is some sort of qualification. 9/10
The Gordons began as the primal scream of new wave sci-fi. Their short bursts of brutal force had an avant energy, which lifted them out of both the punk and rock quagmire of easy classification and early impotence.
When the second version came into being, The Gordons were half the creative force of yore, and unavoidably ‘rock’. But despite the mass exodus of former fans who claimed the band had lost whatever it had that made them so special, Volume 2 proves beyond doubt that they’re still a force to be reckoned with.
There was something absolute and fearless about the early material which cannot be improved upon. What The Gordons have done here is track the changes years bring to attitudes. Fearlessness as replaced by fear and doubt (not to mention loathing). More emotional breadth and a necessity for slower, more sombre reflections.
Not that I’m implying that The Gordons have gone soft. There’s a quota of fast thrashes here, and they’re very good ones. And on a technical level, the record has a bottom-end punch most often lacking in local recordings/pressings (although I must add to that that I’m disappointed with the pressing faults I’ve encountered with this album).
Give this more than a cursory listen. You’ll be surprised what you hear. 7/10
Both songs are from the forthcoming album, and ‘Don’t Know You’ is apparently an extended version. Ex-Garage Crawlers, the GB’s show little of their occasional promise on the a-side, which is standard fare thud-rock without any evident individual characteristics or flare. I’ve tried it low, I’ve tried it loud, on the headphones and on the floor, doing the ironing and hanging out the washing. And I can honestly say I enjoyed it from the washing line the most – although I can’t say the same about the rain. The song is plain pop with an Oz-rock complexion, although the b-side, ‘Lynley’, bodes better for the album.
The moments here belong to the exceptions rather than the rules, but the general drift ain’t exactly bad either. Like the Narcs, the Grammar Boys utilise on their debut Australian rock production values (kind of an auditorium sound with big sounding drums). I mean, three of these here songs were even mixed at Sydney’s Studio 301.
The majority of Daring Feats, despite the rock production, is liberally sprinkled with a pop sensibility and song structure courtesy of lead writer/singer Simon Alexander. Melodies like ‘Is It Me’ and ‘Lynley’, both about females he has known (according to a promo interview tape), just drip early Beatle-esqueness.
Because of the year-and-a-half it took to record, the album has a naturally bits-and-pieces tendency, which although it fails to express a Grammar Boys sound as such, does keep one from getting bored.
For me, three tracks stir interest. Way and above the rest is the Lennonish ‘Something Strange’ which was co-written many years ago with Fetus Production’s Jed Townes. ‘Incognito’ is the oddest thing here, a berserk jam totally unlike anything else on view. ‘Strange Signs’, though somewhat lacking in melodic inventiveness, creates mood and texture missing elsewhere on the album.
So that’s it. Not great. But not bad at all.
Al Green – Soul Survivor (A&M)
Truly awful songs, this time only partially saved by that voice. For fanatics only. 3/10
A thousand band used The Velvet Underground as inspiration after punk made it uncool to be hip-hi-hippy. Needless to say most squandered the idea by wrapping their sounds in the most superficial impression of Velvet-surround aspects.
Many of the bands the Flying Nun label records have a crucial Velvets heritage. Crucial’s the word. Unlike their British and American counterparts, some of these NZ bands sound like they’ve always been tuned into that particular universe.
The Great Unwashed strike straight for the rich fat vein that leads to the brain where all the colour and emotive impact is amplified into something which flashes ‘great sounds great’ (now where’ve I heard that phrase before?) And they don’t even sound like they’re trying. Is that the secret?
Here is a band that cares either too little or too much (either way that spells integrity) for their music, to risk entering the rock’n’roll gravy trail.
The record supposedly under scrutiny – the analytical process is surprisingly irrelevant and inept in these circumstances – is a double 7” single package containing five short songs, wrapped in a plastic hand-painted cover hand-stitched by Hamish Kilgour (one of the group and otherwise Flying Nun pseudo-supremo).
The records are extremely difficult to get out of their cover; no doubt intended to give the listener an added feeling of victory and satisfaction on completion of the task.
Oh, the tracks, the tracks. There are five of them. ‘Duane Eddy’, bizarre dirge and my ultimate fave: “Duane Eddy, one of many, put him on a stage, throw him a penny”. ‘Can’t Find Water’ and ‘Born In The Wrong Time’ are what you could expect from ex-Clean people. ‘Neck Of The Woods’ is what The Church should sound like. ‘Boat With No Ocean’ has the makings of a classic depressive pop song.
The Great Unwashed are probably much more cult and less pop(ular) than they should or could be. A massive irony sees bands like The Violent Femmes more consumable, though TGU are infinitely superior. People are saying Flying Nun’s reign is over, but as long as there are people willing to buy records on intrinsic merit alone there should be a place for The Great Unwashed.
Great-great-great. What more could a mere mortal say. 10/10
If Al Green was to sing an ode to smelly socks with as much invigorating, slinky soulfulness as he celebrates Christ on He Is The Light, I’d immediately relinquish my questionable social standing on the impeccable advice of Rev Green. If Marvin Gaye never quite balanced his physical and spiritual configurations, then Al baby’s the voice to find as an example of perfect sexual/spiritual harmony. Somehow this most expressive of voices reaches past that black pit where the human condition straddles us all from further endeavour. Irrespective of the listener’s beliefs, if one has ever felt the power of music and its ability to reach deeper into the soul than daily existence itself, then here we have an ultimate example. Being the first of Green’s gospel albums to feature the renewed collaboration with producer Willie Mitchell, He Is The Light is of particular interest. It works. 7/10
Peter Green, ex-the inspiration behind the brilliant F. Mac of old, in his much-awaited and recently vaunted ‘comeback’.
His return from religious obscurity brings us an album full of instrumentals featuring relaxed, spare guitar, to a laidback Santana rhythm.
Though it’s a nice sound, excessive praise has been sickening. He brings in another guitarist for the fruitiest solos, his own playing sounding more like ‘Apache’ than ‘Albatross’, and being distinctly rusty around the edges.
Still, it makes for pleasant background noise. But next to the work of old, it’s enough to make you cry. 6/10
Peter Green – Whatcha Gonna Do (PVK)
Green’s third solo in his current burst of post-asylum activity is a cool blues swish even more into nothingness than its sad and empty (but compelling) predecessors, In The Skies and Little Dreamer. This sensitive, broken spirit dwells on a flawed but deeply addictive melancholy. Has the dubious addition of strings. 6/10