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 ‘S’.
The rock historians got it all so wrong. They usually do. The Saints, supposedly, were there at the dawning of the new age. One third of the Gang Of Three (The Saints, The Sex Pistols, The Ramones), the Punk Avengers set out to lay to waste the cocaine-encumbered, champagne-sodden Rock Ruling Class. They were the Toxic Enzymes ferociously eating into the sludge at the bottom of Rock’s Rancid Sewage System.
Then, tragedy. One day, they were so busy shining up the cistern, they inadvertently got flushed down the pipes of their own design.
The Saints, who came from Australia, were victims of a certain amount of English snobbery, and therefore never entered into the popular consciousness as major punk instigators. It was left to a small elite to champion their cause. Mr Christopher Knox could, would, does, tell a thing or two about The Saints.
But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Because, just as the group was making music in the pre-punkstoric times of the early 1970s, it is also making music in the mid-1980s.
And guess what? The Saints, in 1986, are a rock and roll band. They also, at times – time after time – sound like The Rolling Stones (listen particularly to ‘First Time’ or ‘See You In Paradise’.
In their defence, Chris Bailey may very well argue that he merely checked in at Blues Roots Hotel, and that he’s arrived at a rock and roll derivation by exploring the source and working his own white way with it. It still doesn’t matter.
All Fools Day is devoid of any conjecture on their past or future – an album of well-wrought, disciplined and heartfelt songs. It’s not wild, weird or excitingly different, but it is the record of a man with considerable talent in the art of song craft.
While the songs tend to fit too snugly in a 1960s pop/rock bag, they’re given added dimensions by a production which has a sense of movement and a perfect touch, but never subtracts from the dynamic or honest, rounded ambience; the heart of the songs always shows through.
All Fools Day is a record to which, by the second play, you’re humming the tunes. Check out the impassioned ‘Hymn To Saint Jude’, the benevolent strength of ‘See You In Paradise’, or the acoustic freshness of ‘Blues On My Mind’.
The Saints perform live in Wellington next week; it should be a great show for all rock and roll mainliners. Retro punks are advised to stay well clear. 6/10
Ryuichi Sakamoto – Beauty (Virgin America)
There’s an unwritten conspiracy against any music that isn’t easily pigeonholed. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Beauty is one of the most fascinating albums ever released, but you probably won’t find it at your local record store. The Japanese keyboards maestro has assembled an amazing cast of musicians from around the world, including Beach Boy Brian Wilson and African singer Youssou N’Dour, and created an amazing melting pot of different sounds which, incredibly, works like a dream. The skill and sheer artistry involved in creating, performing and recording this accessible album demands for it a place that today’s narrow commercial minds just won’t allow. Beauty is where it’s really at. 8/10
Santana – Marathon (CBS)
Marathon proves how the mighty have fallen. 5/10
Independent Project Records is a small Californian label fairly oozing sincerity and craft. Each ‘project’ is more than a piece of product, great care being taken in presentation and a kind of label philosophy.
Savage Republic appear to be label mainstays. Their record is musically in the ven of immediate post-punk. It’s jarring, hard, and with an experimental edge. Its songs have titles like ‘Attempted Coup: Madagascar’, and ‘Kill The Fascists!’ It grows on you, and shows there is life (even if it is slow to germinate) in America.
Kommunity FK have a certain similarity of approach. Their noise is interesting at times, but it is often marred by a ponderousness and a vocalist who sounds like he’s got early Vanilla Fudge in the brain. Still… interesting. 7/10 and 6/10
Dilletante avant gardening or rock and roll? Does it matter? Somewhere betwixt the two, actually. A recognised musical inarticulacy affects the two sides with spin-offs both good and bad. It challenges preconceptions and allows for some stunning sound sketches and synth sounds. But, not knowing where to take Mitch Jones’ droning spoken vocals places limits on an otherwise open palette. Definite accomplishment: being Australian without sound it. 6/10
My friend… a nervous young chap… worked in a bank. Being new in a strange city, his first social recourse was the bank social function. Everybody seemed to know one another. Most of them were old. Soon, he espied a lone female fixing a drink across the way. Bank shoes squelching on the bank floor, he finally drew up to his prey. “Gidday”, said he. “Hello”, said she. But what was to emit from his untrustworthy mouth next was to forever haunt him in his worst dreams. “Do you wank? I… I mean… Do you work in a bank?” he stammered, trying to patch up the mess. The motto is: my pale little story is on at least an equal laughter rating to the new Scorpions record. But my story is true. 1/10
Severed Heads – Twister (Volition/Festival)
Synth innovators from the dawn of techno – these guys made the terrifically scary music for the film Dead Calm – with a maxi-single that ranges from the sinister pop of ‘Twister’ to the heavy hypnosis of ‘The Tingler’. Finger slicin’ good. 6/10
The Sex Pistols – Carri On Sex Pistols (Virgin)
Carri On Sex Pistols, being interviews and banned adverts, is at once the ultimate rip-off in record marketing and an intriguing souvenir. 6/10
The Sex Pistols – Kiss This (Virgin)
The punk rock revival? Kiss my ass! 1/10
Inevitably, rock music is a great stamping ground for bandwagon jumpers. New York band The Shirts have suffered much chastisement from overseas rock press for trying to join the dregs of the New Wave movement and missing the boat in the process.
The Shirts’ background negates this criticism, however. Their music is simply the sum of its influences – most prominently Jefferson Airplane and Lou Reed, plus the genre that man helped spawn.
The crux of the biscuit, so to speak, is that The Shirts’ debut album combines incompatible mutations of New Wave cliches and hippy psychedelia, to awkward and sometimes patently neutered/diluted effect.
The opening three songs, ‘Reduced To A Whisper’, ‘Tell Me Your Plans’ and ‘Empty Ever After’ are solid, memorable pop pieces, but elsewhere the album sinks in the muddy mire of Mike Thorne’s production.
It’s worth noting that this was recorded in April of ’78, though, so The Shirts may well have resolved their problems.
If the real thing was too potent a mixture for you, The Shirts may just appeal. It’s heartening to note that for once the token female vocalist, Annie Golden, certainly wasn’t chosen for pinup value. 5/5
There is one crevasse into which so very many capable New Zealand rock groups continue to fall. This dilemma gets the best of all but the hardiest. Should a band attempt to make their music appeal to as many members of the public as possible – after all, it is a small, supposedly middle of the road population in New Zealand – or should they remain true to themselves and plough their own furrow in the way they think best?
Most Kiwi bands take the first option, and by trying to appeal to all they actually appeal to few. Bar patrons may drink to their music, but why waste beer money on their records?
Only a few bands have had the gumption to stick to their original vision. The notable example is Split Enz, who had a large cult following from the beginning because their music was genuinely bizarre and unusual.
There are several New Zealand groups with vision, originality and commitment to what they are doing and believe in. Take away the Government’s 40 percent sales tax, and there would soon be a healthy export of records by these artists to Europe, a continent that laps up such material in large doses. With restrictions still imposed however, records by such groups are unlikely to be made in the first instance, and even more unlikely to be noticed with interest by any but the few.
An example of such a band is Wellington’s Shoes This High, whose EP (their first) was recorded in Auckland. To say it is exceptional is an understatement. It is fair to say that if Shoes This High were a British band, this record would be a much sought after item. It is an independent release, produced by the group. The cover and distribution are also handled by the group.
Their music does contain elements of music heard elsewhere: Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, Pil, The Fall, Gang Of Four… but overall the sound is unmistakably Shoes This High.
‘The Nose One’ is an addictive trance dance with nagging bass and guitar lines by Jessica Walker and Kevin Hawkins respectively, and lyrics that perhaps reflect the band’s own philosophy: “I just follow my nose/I don’t care about my clothes/I close my eyes/I fall asleep… nothing, nothing, nothing!”
‘Foot’s Dream’, played with the air of inevitability of the average New Zealander’s limiting lifestyle attacks in particular, the institution of marriage. In ‘A Mess’, vocalist Brent Hayward gives examples of mindless violence and self-abuse, screams a fierce “I don’t think it’s so funny”, and reinforces it with a hurt: “It’s a mess, a horrible mess.”
‘Not Weighting’, the finale, is an ominous almost-instrumental, with xylophone/breaking glass sound effects. Spare and jarring, it is quite unlike anything recorded in this country.
With bands like these New Zealand has come of age. It’s time we realised it. 9/10
Hypnotic mood music from ex-XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews, ex-Gang Of Four bassist Dave Allen, and drummer Carl Marsh, Care is Shriekback’s first album proper. It presents Shriekback in a bass-heavy trance of mellow, hazy funk (‘Lined Up’), and mild experimentalism (‘Happax Legomena’), which can be addictive and stimulating, relaxing or oppressive, depending entirely on the mood of you, the listener. They have the lyrics but could stand a David Byrne (ie, a vocalist with character). However, Care is still much-played in my space.
The Infinite What? Burp? Ex-artschool intellectuals salvage scraps from two albums and several unavailable Eps. Spare English funk and dub distillations, pulverising basslines, repetition with no forward motion. Mood, movie or marijuana music performed with one hilarious misconception: Shriekback ‘sing’. 5/10
1981, Evening Post
On rare occasions, one stumbles across a record that truly defies such descriptions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Empires & Dance, the third album by this British group (their first was released here but their second was not) is one such record. It is both original and derivative, and can make for both captivating and tortuous listening.
Influences come through in Jim Kerr’s Bryan Ferry vocal mannerisms, and in the music can be heard random slices of Joy Division, The Cure and even Pink Floyd (circa ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’).
Their original sound consists of hypnotic rhythms, over which colourfully layered textures are weaved. Sound as image-evocation is all-important; the instruments are often mixed in such a way that you cannot imagine which instruments are creating the sounds. This prevents the listener from creating an image of the band and leaves the music alone to think about.
Because the rhythms are repetitive, however, they easily obscure the sound textures and colourings from a listener who is not concentrating, and it is then that the music becomes a chore.
Surprisingly, Simple Minds is an instrumentally conventional rock lineup: vocals, sax and guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. It’s obviously the treatments, electronic and otherwise, they give to these instruments that make the difference.
The only distraction is Kerr’s lyrics which seem to cloud and inhibit the music instead of letting it speak for itself – of course, instrumental music an make statements.
In retrospect, I’m confused. I’ve an inkling that this is one to slowly grow to appreciate over a month or so. 8/10
Dec 1981/In Touch
The music on Sons & Fascination is more identifiable, more accessible than the first Simple Minds album to gain a large following, last year’s Empires & Dance. This is the one that will create a mass audience for the group. It’s instantly pleasurable on a sonic base alone with a lovely, rich, big sound that deserves the volume treatment, yet which doesn’t go for abrasiveness.
Simple Minds have rightly been taken to task for launching a new phase of pomp/techno-rock. We should be aware of this genre’s inherent pretentions and pitfalls. In the meantime, Simple Minds are making some of the most anthemic, spirited and uplifting music of the ‘80s.
Here for the first time, Simple Minds are recorded to the fullest thanks to producer Steve Hillage. This allows the music to fly – a truly grand traveling Euro dance music that does stand the listening test.
The album is there to be listened to as a totality, but if you must pick and choose, start with the great disco of ‘Love Song’, or the huge synth riff-dominated ‘70 Cities As Love Brings The Fall’. Or perhaps the tour-de-force ‘Boys From Brazil’, or…
A pity that we in NZ won’t get to hear the companion album Sister Feelings Call, given in the UK as a freebie with Sons. It’s of a similar standard of excellence and contains brilliant tracks ‘The American’ and ‘League Of Nations’. ‘Courage of dreams’ and ‘Fire for the times’ are scratched into the run-off groove of my copy. Could mean something. 8/10
The double live album. Next to five-album Bruce Springsteen boxed sets there’s nothing in the world quite so sure to wilt the critic’s enthusiasm.
Imagine the sheer torture of wading through 80 minutes of indulgent, putrescent dross with a topping of white crowd noise, courtesy Anytown, America.
The gig happened in some cavernous sports stadium, of course, where the folks can hardly see, let alone hear the band properly. So they make a lot of noise to compensate, to pretend that what’s going down here is a party, not a load of zilch.
What we hear on the record is an audience who seem to comprise some pre-primate beings who have the recall to recognise familiar sounds and respond with crude noises, but have no talent for appreciating the more coyly “sensitive” opuses of their favourite icons.
The music on most double live albums contains the band’s current repertoire, often stressing inferior recent material by stretching it to twice its original playing time.
We can hear the band much better than the audience at the gig, but that’s our bad luck. We get the dubious benefit of something which in the movies is called “post-production”. That means basic live tracks are overlaid by soundalike studio copies, or instrumental blunders are covered up by overdubbing studio parts.
Okay, so try to think of five great double live albums. There’s The Doors’ Absolutely Live, Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now… but nothing like enough to justify the vinyl wasted on Every Group’s Worst Moment over the years. Even my favourite double lives don’t exactly grace my turntable with regularity.
When I think of double live albums, I think of Frampton Comes Alive. Sorry to bring it up, but that’s Some Live Mutha. My high school years were turned to tears by slobs who thought Frampers the cat’s whiskers. Who knows, maybe they grew up to like Laurie Anderson and Leonard Cohen. Some improvement, I guess.
But honestly, folks, the double live album is the ultimate in vapidity, a bad sign which almost always means that the artistes haven’t enough creative energy left to come up with a studio album on time. (To meet their stipulated record company deadline, that is). The concept is bogus, boring, and almost always coincides with the group’s downfall from critical grace and artistic integrity.
Take Simple Minds. SM never pretended to be anything but an Art-Rock band. I never hated them for it. Their early albums showed their influences rather too keenly, but somewhere within they were working on an impressive sound of their own.
By their third album, Empires And Dance, theirs was a unique, repetitive trance dance which fitted brilliantly to Kerr’s travel themes. These were not so much songs as musical voyages; train journeys with familiar patterns but changing, fleeting images along the way.
I liked SM once. Their double live album reminds me why I don’t like them anymore.
Let’s begin with the guts of it, the important bit, the cover art. Gold-embossed wording on matte black. Inside, greeted by a 16-page glossy colour photograph booklet.
On the first page, hands reach out of the audience searching for the Hand on Higher, obviously belonging to Master Kerr. Moving along, we get to see all of these remarkably sincere, genuine guys, posing before historical buildings, looking pensive. Next to statues, gallant. Profiled by a stunning purple sunset, looking like pure Christian boys on a Plain Truth magazine cover. Don’t forget about the picture of the Flying Leap, or the wistful portrait in a field of blooming sunflowers. Ugh.
Then, there’s the music. Not for a moment, on this entire collection, does SM live up to its reputation. Except for: the crashing oomph given to the last moments of the opening number, ‘Ghostdancing’: the hugeness of the ‘Waterfront’ riff; the dreaminess of ‘Someone Somewhere In Summertime’.
The whole thing, recorded in France, is lovingly recorded, but…
As if U2 weren’t besotted enough with their own image, SM are obviously enamoured with it, too. So J. Kerr has taken singing lessons. Before, he couldn’t sing but he could convince. Now, the reverse is true. SM retain something of the rhythmic monotony of the old band, while wherever possible brandishing that numbing Steve Lillywhite legacy, U2 drum whacks.
There’s a surplus of that U2 ‘Sanctify Yourself’ positive pap propagandising, too. Enough, I imagine, to drive many fans back to some dirty-ass rock and roll.
The bit that really sticks in my gullet, though, is the one where they wheel out a token black female to wail and moan over some particularly uninspired non-song. I’m talking specifically about ‘Once Upon A Time’, and once upon a time there was direction, propulsion, ideas and imagination.
You could say that ‘Book Of Brilliant Things’ is some light relief. Hearing the audience clap to the fake orchestral build-up could have been a moment of true hilarity, if it weren’t for the disenchanting experience the rest of the album bequeaths.
Beware the double live. It could blight your enthusiasm, too. 3/10
The Sinceros – The Sound Of Sunbathing (Epic)
Here’s an album of happy summer songs (a new wave Beach Boys?) by Lene Lovich’s backing band. 6/10
Sinitta – Wicked (Liberation)
Jaunty dance-pop mostly in or around the SAW mould which may appeal to Kylie fans but will never replace the real Queen of Pop. 5/10
Wellington rock band Skankattack have been making a lot of noise in the city over the past year, culminating in the release of their own 12-inch four-song EP, and a compilation album of neglected Wellington bands on their own Skank Records.
Skankattack’s murky music echoes Joy Division and early Echo And The Bunnymen without imbuing their influences with any discernable degree of imagination. The vocals are annoyingly indistinct and meekly back in the mix, as on the majority of tracks on the label compilation, When The Wind Blows.
Virtually everything on the album is poorly recorded, but two obvious standouts are ‘The Wild Poppies’ and ‘The Primates’; the former for the distinction of knowing how to build up a song and nice guitar effects, and the latter for a wacky structure reminiscent of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band.
Also worth checking out is ‘The Glass’, which despite orientation-confusion manages to turn into a piece that goes for feeling over style, fitting in a neat feedback twist at the end; and ‘The Jonahs’, whose world-weary tick tock rock contains a certain sprawling charm. 5/10
Skids are a young Scottish group whose music transcends the fickle whims of fashion – it’s original, committed, ferocious, inventive, yet mainstream. And you can dance to it.
Vocalist Richard Jobson penned the lyrics to most of the debut album Scared To Dance and depending on your views regarding the compatibility between rock and poetry, these sketches in manic-depressive paranoia will either seem compassionate and illuminating, or downright pretentious.
But it’s the music that matters. William Simpson and Thomas Kellichan on bass and drums respectively, make for a tight, energetic rhythm section, but guitarist Stuart Adamson is the group’s musical force. Most of Skids’ songs are built around Adamson’s biting riffs and distinctive guitar sound, which he attains by open-tuning one string to provide a bagpipe-type drone effect.
All 12 songs cut the mustard, showing considerable maturity for such a young group. ‘Into The Valley’ is the opener and an immediate attention-grabber, but the frightening title track and bizarre ‘Hope And Glory’ are most indicative of the serious nature of Skids’ material.
Skids music is 1979 – cold and paranoiac – but ultimately human. Skis spit tacks. Better first albums are rare indeed. 8/10
Those with dance criteria uppermost will get the groove from American funksters resident in England Rody Skipworth and Phil Turner. Stay at homes, however, will find little to stimulate the brain’s rhythm recesses on this album of delicious sounds and average songs. The Stevie Wonder-influenced hit, ‘Thinking About Your Love’, is duly included, along with a couple of soppy ballads. 5/10
Well, this is a nice surprise. The first ice-queen of psychedelia is back with a vengeance, and her re-entry into the rock arena ain’t half as embarrassing as it could very easily have been. In fact, I expected it to be embarrassing. Not that I cared – I gave up caring about the whole Airplane/Starship/Slick/Hot Tuna conglomerate long ago.
Our Grace has lost none of her awesome voice on Welcome To The Wrecking Ball, and in fact, it has never been caught on vinyl in such good form. It’s a hard rocking, semi-heavy belting, screaming amend for last year’s ballad disaster, Dreams. It’s a great pity she chose such standard heavy American rock musos to back her up, though, because her powerful vocals deserve a less leaden, more vital musical support.
The material itself is pretty much all uptempo, with softer exceptions in ‘Shooting Star’ and ‘No More Heroes’. Yeah, it’s great to have that voice back, but I don’t know if I can handle the culture shock of her band. 6/10
Sly and Robbie are the crucial rhythm section that propels the guts of reggae top-dogs Black Uhuru, but the distinctive and subtle session work for Grace Jones long ago removed them from a monocultural ghetto. Black Uhuru have maintained a strength, solidarity, and individuality, while Sly and Robbie soon became every old has-been’s favourite session-boys, and even featured on a Bob Dylan album or two.
Now there’s Language Barrier, a 1980s equivalent to those pointless and maddeningly boring superstar session jam albums of the early 1970s. It sounds very nice, but grooves on endlessly in a no-song, no-man’s-land somewhere between reggae, jazz, rap, soul and funk. If this is breaking language barriers, then the certified new language is gibberish, because Language Barrier communicates nothing, and nothing not very well.
Oh, but it is pleasant, and it has a massive bass sound and odd novelty vocals. Could be just the thing for the salon. 5/10
If the cover sells the record it’s a reflection of the buying public, not the Slits. Without it, this may not sell, but it deserves to be consumed and, if possible, in vast quantities.
The Slits were Britain’s first all-girl punk band back in 1976 – contemporaries of the Pistols, Clash and The Damned – and like several others from that era, they’ve waited a few years to make good on their promise.
The nucleus of the band is Ari Up (vocals), Viv (guitar) and Tessa (bass). Helping out on Cut are drummer Budgie and producer Dennis Bovell. The material on this album was all co-written with ex-member Palmolive.
Bovell carries the weight and influence on Cut. He’s the top British reggae producer and it shows. Cut sounds of a delicious mellow crispness, and the music, though retaining a fragment of punk (similarities with Siouxsie crop-up inevitably) is predominantly reggae-influenced.
Cut is a very tasty, unorthodox yet easy to take album. It’s great as in enjoyable, fun, danceable, listenable and irrelevant in the general scheme of things. It’s an interesting little diversion. 7/10
The Small Faces – Collection (Castle)
Dated but charming, this is a double album compilation from ‘60s second division pop psychedelicists. 7/10
Four songs on a tape from Christchurch. Smart Russians are a well-recorded, disciplined post-progressive bunch. On ‘1-And-A-Half Minutes’ and ‘Hell’ in particular, they sound impressively like a Genesis before they lost their dynamism and got the pomp… if anyone can remember as far back as that! Reminds me of nothing less than one of my favourite obscuro bands, Random Hold. But what does that mean to anybody? Available for $3.50 from Box 13411, Christchurch. 6/10
Smiley Culture – The Original (Jayrem)
It’s three years late, but the hilarious ‘Cockney Translation’ and five other woofer-breaking bass-monster reggae toasts is better late than never. 6/10
Rex Smith – Sooner Or Later (CBS)
This latest American teenybop idol sings dreadful songs from the motion picture in a dreadful post-pubescent voice. Hit single: ‘You Take My Breath Away’. 2/10
Leaving Snakefinger’s profound collaborators for a moment, I must profess that Greener Postures is sure a swell piece of plastic. The hole in the middle actually fits over the average record turntable, and the record itself, especially side the first, plays in a manner not alien to accustomed Smurfs afficionados. You know: the patented compressed peculiar chipmunk-hammed-up-puzzle. The drums! The muffled sound of a bed-head rhythmically hitting the other side of a bedroom wall! So strange? And so much for that. The second side is an infinitely more accurate, one presumes, assessment of what the character Snakefinger will sound like in a concert setting: real instruments! A real band? Guitars and drums! A real song song in a weird but conventionally unconventional manner. 7/10
Snakefinger – Chewing Hides The Sound (Ralph Records)
Dec 1981/In Touch
Chewing, released in NZ for the first time, is actually Greener Postures’ predecessor, and it’s a better album. Owing much to The Residents (they play on the LP), Chewing is very cool and very funny. Great title: ‘Jesus Was A Leprechaun’. 7/10
A 12” single from a band who steadfastly rise above the sometimes elitist Flying Nun modus operandi; Sneaky Feelings write accessible ‘60s-influenced pop songs with acute, realistic observations on life, and radio has NO EXCUSE for ignoring their hit potential. ‘Better Than Before’ is another gem from the Sneakies, and this time they’ve expanded the instrumental approach by adding horns and vibes, and on ‘Wouldn’t Cry’, Red McKelvie’s pungent pedal steel. Then there’s always the winsome harmony vocals, direct from America’s West Coast circa 65. Sneaky Feelings are an underestimated band. 7/10
Sonic Youth – Dirty (DCG/BMG)
A huge reputation precedes this New York noise group, but despite some formidable instrumental dynamics, tension and textures, there’s a chronic lack of heat and songs here. And they can’t sing. 5/10
I like to think of bands like Joy Division, Echo And The Bunnymen and The Sound as the Downs Syndrome bands. Not that they’re mentally retarded, just that life’s so full of angst for these (now not so) young men. I find it hard to believe that they go home at night and live the kind of morose lives their song lyrics depict, but if they’re a bit defeatist they at least come across as thoughtful, intelligent and heartfelt. About matters of the head and the heart (surprised?) the songs tend to sound sincere because they don’t politicise or shout. While The Sound have yet to shake off some of the musical similarities they share with bands like the Bunnymen, they do contain a special, nebulous quality that’s hard to put one’s finger on. Is it worth the effort? Listen for yourself, but this album is at least the most honest, astute collection of tracks I’ve heard in some time. 6/10
The Specials live up to their name. They’re like nothing but everything else: special. They make music with the humanity of ska, rocksteady and reggae; and the youthful dynamism of prime punk. And I love it. (And this from one with about as much acquaintance and enthusiasm for roots rock reggae as yer average Pallavi Indian flautist.)
The Specials originate from Coventry, England, forming around mid-’77. They number seven guys, two Jamaican-born, five whities. But they’re all as one, pacifist Rudeboys. Come out of numerous soul bands, they tried mixing punk and reggae ala The Members, but were not satisfied with the result. They ended up doing it anyway on this debut (more or less).
Reggae came to fruition out of ska via rocksteady, and The Specials have tapped these two earlier sources. Who’d have thought anything as wonderful as this album could have had its roots in Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’? Well, for this boy at least, ska and rocksteady are both more danceable and a much more attractive proposition in general than a lot of reggae.
The Specials, it seems, were noticed stealing the show from the likes of The Police and The Pretenders at outdoor fests, and soon after decrepit talent scouts like old Jumpin’ Jack Flash himself became interested in signing the band. But being the sensible individuals they are, they first released a single independently and then secured a unique deal with Chrysalis allowing them an extraordinary amount of freedom.
Line-up: Neville Staples handles most vocal chores with the help of Terry Hall. John ‘Prince Rimshot’ Bradbury drums like three and Horace Panter plays spunky bass. Jerry Dammers contributes tinny, bubbly organ, Roddy Radiation guitars and Lynval Golding guitars rhythmically.
Tracks: ‘Message To You Rudy’ is a single and a cover of a Dandy Livingston or G. Thompson toon, depending on who you believe. (One and the same person, perhaps?) It’s an instantly infectious little number given a blacker than blacker sound. This is seven guys enjoying themselves: exuberant, happy ska with a streetwise, urban bent to it. Farting trombones and all, I swear this is one never to get sick of, possible radio over-exposure included.
‘Do The Dog’ is another cover and a token punky effort. ‘Gangsters’ is the other extracted single release. It’s slightly mysterious, gloriously cluttered, and is a hammy James Bond theme joke.
If ‘It’s Up To You’ is not already another single and top spot candidate, then it should be. What a glorious hybrid of everything good and great and cheap about modern music. Great tune, haunting performance.
‘Nite Klub’ is yet another potential hit single. “What am I doing here/watching the girls go by?” Real energy, not faked aggression. ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’ hits an altogether more serious note. “Just because you’re a black boy/just because you’re a white/It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him/It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight… It’s the worst excuse in the world.”
The only number written by Roddy Radiation (the remainder penned by Dammers) is an uninspired if workmanlike theme, ‘Concrete Jungle’. No doubt rousing chorus stuff in performance.
To Side 2. ‘Monkey Man’ has crowd noises and group commentary (“This one’s for all the bouncers – big, big monkey man”), segueing into another infectious, bouncy, uptempo number, ‘(Dawning Of A) New Era’: inventive, upbeat rock-ska. ‘Blank Expression’ is an immensely enjoyable joke which goes: “(Where) Where, did you get (get), that blank (blank) expression on your face?”
‘Stupid Marriage’ is social comment: In a court case, a guy defends himself, the judge sentences, the group criticise him for getting into a ‘stupid’ marriage in the first place. Social comment. ‘Too Much Too Young’ is along similar lines, but this accommodates one of the best tunes in this package. Again, it’s not without humour, scathing as it may be. “You’ve done too much, much too young/You’re married with a song when you could be having fun with me.”
Another reggaefied punk thrash is ‘Little Bitch’, and then the last track, ‘You’re Wondering Now’, wonders what the listener is going to do when he finishes listening to The Specials.
The Specials (band and album) have flaws. They’re young, naive, and need in the long run to define their art somewhat, but they’ve got time. It’s to be hoped that they won’t lose the all-important spontaneity in the process. The charm is not strictly musical, though that helps.
The debut album of the year already. (I know this was released last decade in Britain, but remember, we do live right across the other side of the world you know!) 10/10
The Specials – The Specials (Chrysalis)
Let us allow The Specials to twist our jaded sensibilities back into shape.
Forget, for a moment, what the music of the 1980s should be (1984 isn’t quite with us yet) – droning synthesisers, interminable throbbing drum machines and soulless singing robots.
The Specials can instil some warmth to a record collection. They demonstrate what it’s like to be nice and youthful, and yet not Donny and Marie mawkish.
The Specials is the debut album from this Coventry sextet, and every one of its 15 songs is a cracker.
The music is an amalgam of ska – a Jamaican predecessor to reggae – and new wave. It’s refreshingly naive, and winningly infectious.
The album and its resulting singles (”Gangsters’ and ‘Message To You Rudy’) have dominated the British pop charts for the last month. And on this showing The Specials warrant every last bit of fame coming their way.
The tracks are too numerous for all to be mentioned, but favourites include the message-rife ‘It’s Up To You, ‘Stupid Marriage and ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright.’
These boys tell real-life stories. But the music parties.
Bouncy, tinny organ by Jerry Dammers (who writes most of the material) is reminiscent of Elvis Costello, who (coincidentally?) happened to produce this album.
The distinctive, original sound is mainly due to the aforementioned Dammers and his organ, plus John Bradbury’s magnificent drums, and horn men Rico Rodriquez and Dick Cuthell.
The Specials will be one of the most played albums this year. 10/10
Jon McLeary’s Spines have certainly developed a distinctive musical voice – one which is as addictive to fans as it is foreign to outsiders who cannot fathom the difference between one Spines song and the next. Despite a clean production job, ‘Punch’ is a peculiarly unlikely choice for the A-side of a 12-inch single. The song is fiddly to play and the outcome is an arrangement somewhere on the stodgy side. Maybe it would sit better on an album. ‘Your Body Stays’, however, is an essential addition to McLeary’s catalogue of patented anguished ballads in the singer/songwriter mould. It’s moving. 7/10
Don’t let the name fool you, this is a solo Jon McLeary record. But don’t let that put you off buying the thing, because, in fact, this is the best record Spines never made.
Act Your Age is a 6-track mini-album beautifully recorded at Auckland’s Last Laugh studio, and the only accompaniment to McLeary’s voice and guitar is the spare but effective drumming of Ross Burge and Gregory Price.
Does Jon fall victim to the dreaded singer-songwriter wimpoid disease? Not at all. McLeary manages to be intensely personal, but at the same time detached enough to know whether the story he’s telling will be of interest to his audience. He has the ability to combine lyrics, melody and sound to an evocative totality that is heavy in character and atmosphere.
On ‘Lions’, ‘Act Your Age’ and ‘Prepare To Scream’ (especially the last named), McLeary plays manipulative tricks on one’s emotions. This manipulation is never cheap, however, just a clever combination of vocal conviction, and the somewhat eerie melancholy of the echoed guitar and minor-key melodies.
Without reservation, one of the year’s best. 8/10
Those who would have Split Enz as a minor-league intellectual ex-art school band are set to swallow their hasty, ill-considered words, in double time.
For True Colours, the new LP, shows such sacrilegious verbiage vendors that here stands a band not about to give in to the average Kiwi’s anti-New Zealand music apathy.
From the first to the last note, the Enz give us what we want in top-league style.
True Colours was recorded in Melbourne with producer David Tickle at the helm, and represents the turning over of yet another fresh green leaf. A brash, commercial sound, previously partially exploited on ‘I See Red’, is adopted. The songs are essentially infectiously simple (simply infectious) with complex embellishments.
This, the sixth Enz LP disc sees two major changes. One: Split Enz for the first time really sounds like a tight unit – a real group. Two: True Colours is the first Enz LP produced in the hard-headed 1980s fashion of Cheap Trick’s Tom Wermann.
Cheap Trick similarities don’t stop there. Both bands are overwhelmingly influenced by The Beatles. But whereas the Trick are American, and have arrived by way of Chuck Berry, Split Enz are NZ-British, arriving by way of Genesis.
Both are talented tunesmiths with flashes of brilliance, but short of genius.
The songs on True Colours are mostly interchangeable. That is not to suggest they are necessarily “samey”, but that simply the uniformity of sound, the unity of the whole package, results in a certain antipathy after long listening hours.
At the same time, every individual song carries singles potential.
‘Shark Attack’, ‘What’s The Matter With You’, ‘I Wouldn’t Dream Of It’, and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ are all great pop songs with the power of rock (powerpop? Surely not!)
Neil Finn takes lead vocals on two tracks here, the single ‘I Got You’ and ‘Missing Person’. His voice gives a different perspective to the Enz sound.
‘I Hope I Never’ is the obligatory soft mushy, Manilow-like ballad. I like it, against my better instincts. Tim Finn here sings with such aplomb that you’d hardly recognise the 1975 model against the mature 1980 version.
‘Poor Boy’ is my vote for best track. It doesn’t jump out of the speakers and grab you around the throat. Its charm works subtly, gaining in magic through constant listenings.
‘How Can I Resist Her’ sounds disappointingly trivial standing side by side with the rest of True Colours.
The biggest departure, however, ‘Double Happy’ and ‘The Choral Sea’, are both instrumentals. Keyboardist Eddie Raynor is here tapping the same lucrative vein as Gary Numan: synthesiser used up-front in a commercial context. Both these pieces are nagging, buzzsawing, unforgettable delights.
So that’s it (not in chronological order). A new sound with roots in the old Enz style – but the connections are becoming increasingly nebulous.
True Colours – better than Dream Police, and the first well-produced Enz to be both aesthetically as well as commercially (we hope) successful. 9/10
Everybody’s local heroes, Split Enz, have finally hit the big time: this latest vinyl instalment achieved Platinum sales in pre-orders before it even reached the record shops.
Split Enz is in a most unusual situation in that it is tasting success at its musical peak.
The pressures to produce a follow-up to last year’s successful True Colours must have been immense but the band has avoided the temptation to repeat itself and has come up with an album of merit.
If Waiata lacks the obvious singles choices of its predecessor then it can be said that it is a more unified and substantial work. David Tickle’s production captures the full dynamic range of Enz music. The compositions are never less than good pop songs, though it must be said that the slightly frenzied offbeat pop of the opening ‘Hard Act To Follow’ transcends the derivative (not to mention repetitive) ‘History Never Repeats’.
The combination of creative recording techniques, interesting musical asides and top-notch performance and composition makes up the total effect of Waiata. So where the Tim Finn whimsy of ‘I Don’t Wanna Dance’ would have sounded trite on an average record such as Dizrythmia, here it is an absorbing facet to a multidirectional record.
The real charm of latterday Enz is the ability of Messrs T and N Finn to compose tunes which hark melodically back to The Beatles, to add a thread of sub-Genesis mock-orchestral backdrop and to throw in unexpected and sometimes bizarre shifts and turns. This recipe works.
Waiata does have its share of failures. The easy listening schmaltz of keyboardist Eddie Raynor’s ‘Albert Of India’ and the noisy, anarchic ‘Clumsy’ are but two. But I’d sooner see a group experiment and make their share of resounding flops and successes, than to rest of their laurels in sterile perfection. 7/10
May 1982/In Touch
Time And Tide is the new, mature Enz. True Colours displayed all the options at that point in time, and it was a pleasant if mild kaleidoscope. Waiata has the feel of a rerun, so it’s great to report that Time And Tide consolidates past experiments, explores further afield and becomes the first all-round Enz LP. The rhythms are the outstanding change. Noel Crombie has developed a syncopated drumming style that lends the group a whole new angle. Tim Finn is also collaborating his writing chores with the others on a more regular basis, which has guaranteed a less whimsical approach for the most part. The only song where Tim goes unchecked is the Jethro Tull-like ‘Haul Away’. Enz may never become important in the overall scheme of things, but they do have a natural talent at creating esoteric pop music with style and taste. 7/10
Rick Springfield – Greatest Hits (RCA)
Rick Springfield? Never heard of him! Just joking. He had a hit. Once. A long time ago. 2/10
Bruce Springsteen epitomises the wholesome middle-class side of the cult hero-worship coin. He spends his vinyl minutes mythologising various aspects of Americans – notably fast cars, women, rock and roll, and the realities (imagined or remembered) of life on the street.
The most ardent fans (many of whom are rock critics) savour his every banal utterance and often defend their fanaticism by crediting Springsteen with some wondrous, elusive, magical quality.
Fans have waited with baited breath a long two years for his double album The River, which retreads familiar lyrical ground. Musically, Springsteen and band dish out standard-issue, regressive, dramatic (as in West Side Story’s contrivances) rock and roll and soul, along with a few ballads for contrast.
I fall asleep listening to Bruce Springsteen. What is the big mystery? 4/10
Ten good stories well told, the Squeeze reformation album is not to be sniffed at, but absorbed through the skin’s pores, as it takes time to assimilate their words and music into a cohesive head-picture.
Songwriters Difford and Tilbrook lean to the traditionalism of Lennon and McCartney, no bad thing. Their scenarios fit the times in which we live, though, and the melodicism is contemporised by modern production methodology. The return of Jools Holland’s keyboards nous plays a large part, too, in the modern sound conversion.
Sometimes, alas, the production swamps the song which inevitably draws comparisons with 1970s showoffs 10cc. But mostly, the content’s intent shines through the clever-clever masking, making Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti a thoroughly worthy, if less than totally, vibrant album. 6/10
Squirm – Squirm Songs (self-released cassette)
Squirm are Chris Burt, Steve Roach and Ramon York. Selected ex-acidheads will remember York as guitarist (like ‘wow, man’) in 1970s space-rock travellers Ragnarok. Squirm Songs is much what was expected: mystical, atmospheric exercises in exceptional musicianship and unusual textural effects. Squirm’s moderate experimentation parallels itself with another dinosaur, Robert Fripp, who has disciplined his art and avoided extinction by losing the pomp. Squirm songs sound a little tentative as captured on cassette, and I hope we shall see a record from the lineup. However, the material here is exotic without being self-indulgent, and is recommended listening. Squirm Songs, perhaps slightly overpriced at $5, is available from Squirm, Box 47295, Auckland.
Lisa Stansfield – Affection (Arista)
Minus the quirks of her Coldcut collaborations, Lisa’s singing is still a minor wonder but the rest is rather snoozy. 6/10
Steele (or should I say her marketing director?) seems to be aiming for a dilution of early Prince in feminine attire. The music is dowdy disco with metal guitar breaks and the songs range from dirty girl sex – ‘Bad Girls Do It Better’ – to pop pastiche stereotype reafirmations like ‘Save The Night For Me’. Tired. 3/10
Steel Pulse – Tribute To The Martyrs (Island)
British reggae band Steel Pulse dish up a superb set that praises the likes of Steve Biko and scorns the neo-Nazi National Front on Tribute To The Martyrs. 7/10
Unlike stablemate/labelmate Sharon O’Neill’s newest, Jon’s debut lacks any interesting production diversions.
Worst of all, Stevens never reassures us that he even understands, let alone believes, the lyrics he’s singing.
But Stevens has an amazingly versatile voice. If he can inject a modicum of taste and artistic commitment (those words again) into his music, he could go places.
The marketing men can sell you, Jon, but is it worth the price that you will have to pay? 5/5
Sticks And Shanty’s Jah Magic is amiable, good-feeling reggae without harsh edges; mellow and sunny. When the band does get into statements, as in ‘Courthouse’, they wisely forgo the usual propaganda for vehement criticism. Again, the record could do with a Sly and Robbie at the controls, but it works within its modest aims. 6/10
Teen throats screamed themselves sore. Hearts fluttered furiously. Eyes wept in wonderment.
When The Police performed at Wellington Town Hall in 1981, two 16-year old girls were there to report their elation in a local rock magazine: “Sting, with his seductive face and amazing bod, is enough to showcase the virile sex appeal that sends half-young girls… into fits of ecstasy. They’re all blonde, too… step aside Rod Stewart. Here come the real monarchs of peroxide.”
It didn’t matter that when you stripped away the quaint ‘New Wave’ appellation that seemed readymade just for the trio, they were no spring chickens. One of them went to school with Elton John! One even played in a dippy hippie group called Curved Air!
It didn’t matter, either, that the blonde was but artificial bleach.
By and large, critics forgave them their anomalies, because The Police had more than just teen appeal. Sting’s yearning doggy-yelp, along with angst-driven lyrics like those of ‘This Bed’s Too Big Without You’, had universal appeal.
What’s more, they could all play their instruments, and they defined their own style out of a weird amalgam of trendy sounds: reggae rhythms with room to move in those spacy, angular musical patterns and shapings.
The years have rolled on by, and Sting finally bequeaths to us his precious second solo album (discounting the live double, Bring On The Night).
And with it, the last teenage screams fade away into a gaping yawn. You’ve seen the new haircut, right? It’s horrible, isn’t it? Instead of the sparkling crop of spiky blonde, he now has what looks uncannily like a receding hairline under an oily splash of lank, thinnish, mousey stuff.
Alas, with Sting the sex symbol no more, we’ll have to mention the album, and the music therein, or thereon, as the case may be. It’s called…Nothing Like The Sun, and you can read how the title came about on the copious sleeve explanations, if you insist on boring yourself to death. This sort of over-explanation is irritating. Sure, he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve, but full written dissertations on the songs and full lyric printouts leave little room for one’s own powers of imagination and interpretation.
Sting can be deadly dull, incredibly earnest.
He’s also capable of making startling and admirable music. …Nothing Like The Sun is a case in point.
It’s a double album for the price of one, though there are only three songs per side, which doesn’t make the total running time much longer than a conventional album. Sound buffs who haven’t yet converted to compact disc will be happy to know that the short per-side playing time enriches the sound and extends the dynamic range.
He’s back with a bunch of technically stunning, hip young jazz players to add what amounts to an incredible depth of musicality to his musings. I suspect the musicians are adding much more to the overall sound than Sting would have us believe; that they are doing much more than merely playing Sting’s songs or scores. If so, it means they are playing on the record a) for the money and b) for the privilege of playing with someone famous. And that’s a little sad.
The ultimate outcome – an unusually excellent pop album – helps balance this classic dilemma in Sting’s favour. We’ll just have to trust in his integrity, I suppose.
You can’t go wrong with the first two sides, which begin with the bubbly, lovely jazz fusion of ‘The Lazarus Heart’, with Branford Marsalis’s saxophone liberally dousing everything and sundry. ‘Be Still My Beating Heart’ has a dreamlike quality, along with Sting’s most romantic lyrics, and ‘An Englishman In New York’ is simply wonderful; an absolutely artful construction, from the plucked strings and the old-world feel to the sudden hefty hammering of heavy drums that quickly subsides.
The fact that he sings like a Jamaican to a reggae beat does have an irony to it, but it doesn’t spoil the sublime mood.
Flip it over, where ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ aims a neat broadside at the way society acknowledges atrocity through the ages without wondering why or even suggesting that the future could be different than the past. Stirring stuff.
As is ‘They Dance Alone’, a poignant picture of a sad people, the bereaved wives of Pinochet’s Chilean slaughterhouse. Declining guitar ‘heroes’ Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler make cameo appearances on this track. Nobody notices. A perfect, albeit sober, side ends with ‘Fragile’ which, with music that amplifies the title, states a simple message: Violence begets violence.
It’s mostly downhill from there. The second record begins with the hit single, ‘We’ll Be Together’, an annoying, nagging pop song too firmly stuck in the modern pop slop bucket.
It gets better with ‘Straight To My Heart’, a complex love song with a charming anti-science sentiment but the silly Noah’s Ark update of ‘Rock Steady’ misses the metaphorical boat by miles.
‘Sister Moon’ is faked sultry Broadway jazz that could have been an outtake, but Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ is a beauteous thing – pity about the guitar solo.
Sting’s adaptation of a German melody, ‘The Secret Marriage’, ends the album on a tentative, uncertain note.
But honestly. Forget the haircut. Eight out of 12 ain’t bad. 7/10
Most heavy metal is noise for a particular kinda guy. It’s a macho celebration for those who live in a mid-range dimension. True HM always threatens, never delivers. Stormbringer are no exception to the rule; though amped to megawatt velocity, the drums still go boom-boom, not crash’n’sizzle. The geetars play a kind of snakes and ladders of curly, curdled stereo soloing (a la Thin Lizzy here, Deep Purpose there). There’s no grungy, hard rhythm work or even astringently tweeter-bursting squealing. That said, this album is exceptional in its own sub-genre. I listened to it primed to the gills as an experiment to simulate the average HM listening experience, and Life Sentence entertained me off my face. And, you won’t believe this: Stormbringer come from Dunedin. HAHAHA! 5/10
Religion: a giant hoax perpetrated by evil aliens. The human race: play things of The Meninblack.
The latest Stranglers album purports to be ‘The Gospel Of The Meninblack’. Provocative? Yes! So is the cover. In the foldout is da Vinci’s Last Supper painting with infiltrating Meninblack. The back cover includes a takeoff of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ addressed to you know who.
Musically, this is possibly the best of all Stranglers albums. It is unfortunate that the album is too short on explanatory lyrical content to adequately convey the concept. Here, as in early days when The Stranglers were accused of being sexist, the band falls prey to lyrical ambiguity. However, this hardly merits complete dismissal of a band whose merits are many.
The Meninblack is a bass-heavy, evil-sounding album; totally in tune with its subject matter. The Stranglers are not the most subtle musicians but they always show a willingness to experiment from within the boundaries of their formula.
Innovations for The Stranglers are quirky, futurist leanings, squealing synthesisers and nasty, chipmunk-type voices on some cuts. Overall, this is an album well worth investigation. 7/10
Streetband – London (Logo)
Streetband’s London makes up in professionalism what it lacks in identity. 5/10
By the end of his short-lived and long-forgotten pop career in the Techtones, Steve Roach was beginning to experiment with the nature of sound and recording. With the Stridulators, he had, in cohorts with Chris Burt, the wherewithal to achieve an inspired sound collage, and this posthumous single is an excellent example. With its abrasive edge and surging, slightly evil mix of component parts, both sides will be willingly devoured by Cabaret Voltaire fans. But they aren’t and don’t sound like that band. One of the year’s best. 8/10
Stuff – Live (Warner)
Recorded at the Yubincholin Hall in Tokyo, this is a laid-back jazz and funk jam by American session supremos Cornell Dupree (guitar), Gordon Edwards (bass), Steve Gadd (drums), Eric Gale (guitar) and Richard Tee (keyboards). 6/10
It’s sickening the way English music mags hype new bands and then slaughter them next time round. With The Sundays, all the hyperbole is deserved: their debut album, Reading, Writing & Arithmetic, is the loveliest thing I’ve heard since the last Cocteau Twins album. That ethereal trio are an obvious influence, but Harriet Wheeler’s achingly pure voice is quite distinctive to anything else in the pop world. It’s a voice out of dreamland, and the music – sometimes echoing the less jangly end of The Smiths’ heritage – is sparse. 8/10
The Sutherland Brothers – When The Night Comes Down (CBS)
A slick, classy Los Angeles production for British singer/songwriters whose biggest claim to fame is writing the Rod Stewart hit ‘Sailing’. 6/10
Swordfish – Stranger Tractor (Volition/Festival)
Anyone who got into the ‘90s psychedelia of Primal Scream should find this rather fetching. Swordfish are an Aussie group (don’t hold that against them) and their debut is something else. A lot of groups have been searching for the perfect match of screaming grunge guitars and danceable beats. This hits the jackpot, by bringing in a mixing ingredient: cosmic Pink Floyd-style atmospherics, circa 1970s. Brilliant! 7/10