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 ‘R’.
Rah Band – Mystery (RCA)
Executive disco computed and programmed to sleek perfection by Richard Hewson and cooed all over by someone called Dizzy Lizzy and the Rah La Las. Smooth fusion disco jazz for the jetset junta. It’s well played and bland beyond belief. 5/10
The Railway Children – Reunion Wilderness (Factory)
Superficially, The Railway Children inhabit an area not far removed from the leaner pickings of the current pop tree; they’re not different but they are a little special. The sound and lineup is standard, the playing mere craft. But like our own Bats, there’s an inexplicable charm at work, an honesty perpetuated by Gary Newby’s open voice and songs which seriously undertake to discuss various aspects of human relationships. No, it’s not a humorous record. Try ‘Brighter’ for size. 6/10
Rainbow – Down To Earth (Polydor)
Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple heavy metal vehicle is joined here by former pop singer Graham Bonnett and former Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover. Purple freaks will appreciate. 6/10
A Los Angeles group whose vision gets deflected into somebody’s idea of what the psychedelic ‘60s must have really been like. If The Church were less pretentious and bound by a single song, they might sound like Rain Parade, who use semi-acoustic guitars, never overstate themselves, and have a shimmering airiness that can be quite attractive. Despite some nice touches, though, the songs fail to grab attention, and you find your mind wandering. 5/10
Ever since that remarkable debut in ’76, the Ramones’ career has been a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to match its sharp, minimalist, blitzkrieg attack by diverting into other territories, ending in last year’s muddy mess, End Of The Century. One step forward, two steps back has always been their unfortunate predicament. Realising that they couldn’t keep releasing carbon copies of the first album was one thing. Doing something as good but different was quite another.
The catch-22 hasn’t been resolved on Pleasant Dreams, but it certainly goes some way towards solving the problem. This time they exchange a rusty Phil Spector for a slightly fresher Graham Gouldman in the producer’s swap shop. Surprisingly, he does the boys proud. Gouldman is the ever-so-English writer of some of that country’s best ‘60s pop songs and later a member of witty studio concoction 10cc.
Whether it’s his inspiration that makes this album so fine, or simply the band finding its feet, is an open question. But the fact is that not only is Pleasant Dreams given a big, boomy sound, it’s also a disc full of memorable melodies and strong, funny lyrics. The Ramones can be monotonous; here they’re not.
Naturally, as always, the LP is full of songs lamenting the sad state of modern radio. Even ‘7-11’, though basically a parody of a love song, asks “Whatever happened to the radio?” On this example, they’re like an ‘80s equivalent to The Beach Boys and more than adequate successors to the throne. Pleasant Dreams may not sit comfortably alongside the first album, but sit it will. 7/10
The Records – Shades In Bed (Virgin)
The Records create expertly crafted new wave pop on Shades In Bed. 6/10
Dan Reed Network – Slam (Mercury)
Living Colour started it. Mr Reed mauls the funkee stuff with an arsenal of metal tricks. Hot. 6/10
REM, the ultimate in hip credibility, the critical establishment’s favourite pets. But like many cruelly discarded canines and felines, this Christmas REM’s latest is out in the cold. The verdict is unanimous: Life’s Rich Pageant is a turkey.
But is it? That specific and possibly damaged psyche attached to the bulk of this world’s more respected rock critics found a home in the ambiguous qualities and cunning, melancholy textures of REM’s muse. Michael Stipe’s moody but blurred and utterly indecipherable meanings could assume endless permutations upon the word profound. And the music! The music with its seemingly uncalculated, original approach to the mining of a particular vein cutting through the heartland of 1960s America. It fit perfectly the desire for a music which, while accessible, familiar, could never realistically be challenged as tops in good taste.
On Life’s Rich Pageant, REM clean up their act. You can hear Stipe’s singing. And the record boasts a colour-by-numbers production which successfully tramples any whiff of atmosphere straining to make its presence known.
Me? I think it might be a good sign. Okay, so it’s embarrassing to discover a vocalist, heretofore shrouded in mystery, exposing himself to the world as a cross between the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, Phil Collins and protest-era Barry McGuire. But it’s honest.
Okay, so the music fails to weave the heady spell in which the previous records luxuriated. So what! Haven’t you got enough imagination to fill in the dots?
Ultimately, in a case such as this, ability to perceive the quality of music comes down to instinct. Unfortunately, the overrated REM have put their cards on the table and the spell has been broken.
Life’s Rich Pageant is quite a good record. 6/10
If this record was as awful as its title suggests, the task of reviewing it would be made that much easier. As it is, it’s difficult to muster enough enthusiasm to give the anaesthetically mediocre verdict.
REO is the typical American hard-working road band. The story has been told many times about many bands: an average group plays the touring circuit for 10 years or so until it has gathered a substantial following and then gains a handsome record contract and shrewd management.
With the right marketing, its product hits the charts. Hi Infidelity and the single, ‘Keep On Loving You’, have reached number 1 in America. Unfortunately, in the drawn-out way to the top of the heap, the band’s modest talents are compromised and dissipated to fit the commercial format as its inspiration expired long ago.
The result is an album which could be by any one of a number of soulless hopefuls, with nothing to recommend it and nothing to provoke, offend or inspire the listener. 3/10
Although my rock and roll sensibilities are definitely as maladjusted as my spinal column, one listen to a record like this is like an instant, corrective spinal tape to the sense. The Replacements are making no apologies for being American, and their pride comes through in refreshingly unmeasured doses on Tim, a record which only blind discrimination will prevent you from appreciating. ‘Hold My Life’ (the opener) is par for the course: a pop core with a musical framework that rocks in trad fashion but all the edges are there. All the muscle, all the rusty flying corrugated iron emotions. Nothing’s fingernail filed for radio acceptability. Tim is a rough gem in the sanitised and digitised catalogue of record releases so far in ’86; a necessary bit of true grit after too much soft focus lushness all round. (Disclaimer: Yes, it does have two lovely ballads at the end of the first and second sides). 7/10
And it is! Forty one-minute tracks comprise this, the wackiest yet effort from conceptualist invisibles The Residents. On this one, they’re aided and abetted by high-calibre musicians such as guitar master Fred Frith (ex-Henry Cow) and a bevy of others not credited due to conflicting record contracts.
Whether because of this shared workload, or because of the sheer quantity of different snippets, The Commercial Album is noticeably more three-dimensional than the standard Residents platter. Don’t, however, expect the music to attack your sense – rather, your sensibilities. Their music is daunting in its seemingly passive, sometimes irritating harmfulness: it’s not as cute as it seems.
Most of all, this is for those who wish to sample something away from rock, something subtle and cryptic. And remember: “I see the sea, the sea sees me!” 7/10
James Reyne – James Reyne (EMI)
Unfathomable, intelligent and occasionally even listenable mainstream rock. And a sense of worthiness drowned by endless boredom. Australian Crawl, remember? 5/10
The Rolling Stones – Dirty Work (Rolling Stones Records)
As us of enlightened lives and times are aware, The Rolling Stones actually got kidnapped by Hell’s Angels at the Altamont Festival in ’69, and were last seen getting unceremoniously gang-banged by a bunch of weirdo-degenerates in a San Franciscan grotto. A Muddy Waters poster smiled down at the scene. The group emulators who have masqueraded as The Rolling Stones over the last 16 years haven’t released a decent record, unsurprisingly, except for the sprawling Exile On Mainstreet, which was a posthumous collection of real Stones outtakes. But, fans are fans and the Imposters still lay a new record on us every once in a while. And you know what? This is just about their best yet. Don’t get me wrong, the seeds of greatness need a lot of nurturing and the right kind of chemical-free fertiliser, but we actually have an ENTERTAINING record here, folks! Steve Lillywhite’s production is fat’n’sassy, the singing is gruff and the vocalist really means it, whatever it is. The rhythm guitar BITES. The drums snap. Fake it may well be, but it works. 6/10
Dirty Work sounds like it took about 20 minutes to write and about 40 to record, and it’s the most entertaining superannuation insurance put on the public market for years. The Rolling Stones sound refreshed and re-degenerated.
How and why, after all these years meandering in slovenly abandon? Producer Steve Lillywhite could scarcely have initiated the inspiration. Famed for his monstrous-sounding but less than finely-honed work for XTC, U2 and Simple Minds, Lillywhite’s work on Dirty Work is clean, juicy and dirty in the right frequencies; no mean feat, but hardly to be credited for the Stones’ mini-renaissance.
You get the feeling that on Dirty Work, the Stones came, did and left, leaving all the conceptualising, packaging and promotion to the record company. They probably didn’t care much about the album, and that’s why it sounds fresh.
If one theorises that the classic Exile On Mainstreet was the last bona fide Rolling Stones album, in the same sense that the ‘White Album’ was the last Beatles album, it transpires that every Rolling Stones record since has been strictly fake. That is, the individuals who make the constitution of the Rolling Stones would come together for reasons of financial necessity for the making of several different types of Rolling Stones records throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s.
It’s Only Rock And Roll (1974) and at the other end of the timescale Tattoo You (1983), are two albums in which a group of old bimbos tried to pay homage to their myth, but making an album that sounded like the Rolling Stones. Whenever the group does this – most of the time – they fail dismally, lapsing into dreadful self-parody.
Another type of Rolling Stones record is Goat’s Head Soup (’73) or Some Girls (’80) – variations on the same theme with an interesting ditty and an oddity or even two. Dirty Work is the other type of Rolling Stones record. Like the underrated Black And Blue (’75), it’s a record by the people that used to bring you Ladies And Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones… but it’s not really a Rolling Stones record. Instead, it’s fun.
Dirty Work doesn’t pretend that it’s by the Greatest Rock And Roll Group In The World. Whatever that means. The album has the benefit of good grooves, and fun times. Jagger and co have nothing left to prove, and perhaps they’ve realised it, at last. For a liberating change, the boys in the band haven’t even bothered to represent the Stones’ identity by trotting out The Formula.
So, then, Dirty Work is fun time; an entertaining Rolling Stones record. Somehow, it’s invested with more feeling, more honesty than usual. Could it be the presence of soul great Bobby Womack, and other reputable guests like Tom Waits and Jimmy Cliff? Not to mention Jimmy Page (I said, not to mention).
The songs themselves are not great shakes, but the sound, the dynamics and (surprisingly) Jagger’s wild, gruff vocals fully compensate. The single, ‘Harlem Shuffle’ – though it sounds less weak in the context of the album – is a filler. The big surprise is the ska number ‘Too Rude’ (along with ‘Harlem Shuffle’, a non-original). There is virtually no way this fun number could be detected as having been delivered by Jagger, Richards and co.
Mick The Lips’ lyrics… well, he could have written them while minding the baby, doing the ironing and negotiating the royalties for the CBS contract. But knowing he’s rich enough not to have to do such mental tasks, we can only guess at the state of his head when he was in full creative flight. Nevertheless, the result is seemingly more honest and less offensive than the kind of sexually violent images he wilfully scrawled for Tattoo You.
There are two (possible) cases of sexual abuse here (‘Fight’ and ‘Sleep Tonight’), along with rampant lust (‘One Hit To The Body’), ambition and competition (‘Hold Back’ and ‘Winning Ugly’) and put-down (‘Dirty Work’ and ‘Had It With You’). Most of the lyrics are too ambiguous to carry distinct meaning but ‘Fight’ is offensive: “Gonna pulp you to a mess of bruises ‘cause that’s what you’re looking for/There’s a hole where your nose used to be, gonna kick you out my door.” Ugh.
Elsewhere, he seems to be making a few honest admissions, particularly on ‘Hold Back’: “I’ve been climbing this tree of promises for over 40 years/The visions get broken and bust on the ground, so watch me rebound.” Too often, though, the ambiguity strikes as being a man who considers it necessary to hedge his bets.
But… Dirty Work works. 6/10
Ronstadt may be as sensitive as Mohammed Ali singing ‘Vincent’ and with about as much artistic commitment as a can of Dairy Whip, but Mad Love marks a change.
Here, she uses her considerable vocal cords to good effect on a more calculatedly ‘modern’ (as in Elvis C) collection than ever before.
There’s scarcely a ballad here, and that is no bad thing, but better material and a break from The Eagles does not necessarily good music make. Still, she should please the fans with this classy production. 6/10
Roxy Music – Flesh & Blood (Polygram)
Flesh & Blood is a sweet, bloodless Roxy Music, all sloppy Bryan Ferry sentiment; style and little content. Includes, as Phil O’Brien would have it, an “oorful” version of The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’. 5/10
A heroin overdose killed The Ruts’ singer Malcolm Owen last year, leaving the band’s future in jeopardy. Naturally, Owen’s death left the remaining Ruts soul searching whether to continue or not. It was a cruel blow to a modestly successful young band.
What to do? The Ruts became Ruts DC and continued. The first post-Owen album is a qualified success. Naturally, it is full of the doubt, frustration and tension of the months in which it was created – yet it is optimistic. The sole depression-inducing track is ‘Desondency’, in which the group tries to persuade itself to look at the brighter side, but just fails to stop itself falling from the 17th storey.
I would wage a bet that the first song on the album, ‘Mirror Smashed’, was in fact the last track to be written, as it says it all: that the only way is forward.
All the songs have clear messages: getting involved with life’s issues and being honest (‘Different View’), anti-war (‘No Time To Kill’), anti-fools (‘Fools’). They state the uselessness of rebellion as fashion (‘Walk Or Run’) and warn of big business and its wiles (‘Parasites’).
The sentiments are nicely complementary to the music. The tightness of the band as a unit and the members’ obvious rapport with one another has as much to do with the sound: a big, chunky rhythm section, difficult changes in dynamics handled with ease, excellent harmonised, mentholated vocals.
The Ruts were most times denied the status of first division new wavers such as Pil and Gang of Four, but in their own unassuming way they are just as good. 7/10