The Ultimate A To Z Of Album Reviews By Gary Steel – W

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 ‘W’.

 

W

 

Michael Warmuth – Hammered Dulcimer (Ode)

1984/TOM

Resident Wellington (expatriate American) dulcimer-plonking busker Michael Warmuth gets laundered, moulded and processed and this is the outcome. Not quite music for airports. Not quite music from the mountains. Not quite pan pipe putrescence. Not quite Clayderman-adulterated klassics.

Keyboardist by trade, Warmuth would probably be the first to admit Hammered Dulcimer is more marketing manoeuvre than artistic endeavour. No-one need be ashamed of that. It actually sets out to appeal as pleasant background music – it won’t upset your sensibilities – with a fair degree of taste. And tight musicianship.

No teeth-rotting saccharine-sweetened strings in sight, and Warmuth even gets to pen five of the fourteen compositions himself. Of the rest, the mostly trad tunes are in ye olde folk genre, the only real clanger being the ‘Chariots Of Fire’ theme which suffers through over-exposure, and ‘Greensleeves’ for similar but somehow vastly different reasons.

The cover is refreshingly arty, though perhaps unsuitable, and the contents of the busker’s money-box on the back cover is worth a laugh. Here comes Father’s Day. 5/10

Jennifer Warnes – Famous Blue Raincoat (The Songs Of Leonard Cohen) (RCA)

1987/Evening Post

At last, it can be revealed. True and alarming facts about the man who united punk’s leading terrorist with the reigning Queen of Schmaltz, and the ensuing orgy of idolatry!

Superficially, Nick Cave and Jennifer Warnes have very little in common. But they both share the dark secrets hiding in the shadows of the songs of Leonard Cohen, and are but the latest generation to do so.

Unfairly and ignorantly posited among the chiff-chaff of rock’s most despised crevasse – singer-songwriter-bedsit-land – Leonard Cohen’s art has been all but ignored over the past decade.

Dormant it lay, but never dead. Cohen’s words and music have lasted the stretch of time and – reflected in the stylistic disparity of his two most ardent admirers – we find solid evidence to support the theory that his art encompasses the gamut of human experience. Without cheesy aftertaste.

Back at the very dawn of time, when my face resembled some kind of warped lunar battlefield, Cohen proved an engaging obsession, if a somewhat seething mass of contradictions.

I was rather more fond of the man’s literary excursions than his musical opuses. Back then, it all sounded like the same song.

All I can say in retrospect is “Forgive me, Leonard, for I have sinned.” I was wrong and well off the scent of his pure genius.

In retrospect, part of the attraction of Cohen’s written words was the shock of his dwelling on his substantial libido, and the adventures and pontifications it begat.

But mostly, as I grew accustomed to the way of the world, Cohen’s scenarios, fears, anger, frustrations and resolutions (kept or broken) began to make sense. In song, Cohen catalogues the many contrasting states of mind and morality we all face, to some degree or another; this life that is terrible, terrifying yet beautiful, all in the same breath.

Which is not supposed to make him sound like some maudlin, aching soul set fit to fly off the edge of a precipice. One of the many compensating, illuminating and balancing attributes of Cohen’s words is the incredibly dry humour inherent.

That said, the Legend Of Leonard is never going to grow into mass proportions on the strength of his own recordings. As with Bob Dylan, the writer always records the definitive versions of the songs; but other singers and musicians make them palatable to the masses.

Jennifer Warnes has taken a good potshot at the more accessible of Cohen’s material on her album of his songs, Famous Blue Raincoat. Cohen’s morbid, arthritic-sounding singing may bring the words to life in the mind of the reviewer, but compact disc land wants lifestyle background, and we can but thank Warnes for giving them a dose of something intelligent instead of the usual Streisand-style sentiment.

Yes, Warnes does take the cutting edge off Cohen’s material. Yes, she does pick the most accessible songs from his catalogue. And she adds something in the songs in the process. That is: she brings out the conventionally pretty melodic qualities of Cohen’s songs.

It is this aspect which jumps straight at the reviewer. His own delivery has the uncanny ability to subterfuge the songs; Warnes brings out the songs and there are some truly beautiful, delicate moments on Famous Blue Raincoat. These include, notably, the title track, ‘Joan Of Arc’, ‘And Came So Far For Beauty’.

The hit single, ‘First We Take Manhattan’, is one of the stronger but less accessible tracks, while the only real variation from the norm is the haunting a cappella rendition of ‘A Singer Must Die’.

I can’t imagine too many Nick Cave fans buying this record, but with its potential to divert many middle-of-the-road listeners away from Sade or Robert Cray, I rate it full points for subtle subversion.  8/10

The Waterboys – The Waterboys (Island)

1986/Evening Post

The Waterboys’ 1983 debut is released in New Zealand in the wake of their recent success, and the oft-mentioned “avalanches of big music” are miniaturised here compared with their latest great gushings. Even a torrent of Waterboys cannot disguise Mike Scott’s being a derivative songwriter and composer, and his/their trappings are naked to the world on the first album.

There are obvious Dylan, U2 and even Cure soundalikes here, and Scott never resists the temptation to over-dramatically act out his ordinary, self-important lyrics. Side One, in particular, grates with stick-in-the-gullet arrangements that include dull bleating saxophones and wildly strummed guitars, while Side Two generously offers a little more contrast and a merciful modicum of space if not good taste. 2/10

The Waterboys – This Is The Sea (Island)

1986/Wellington City

The Waterboys long ago wrenched a leaf from the then fertile imaginations of Echo & The Bunnymen and proceeded to chisel a different kind of grandeur from the same passionate rock face. This is a great, grand mass/mess of waterfalling emotions. Group guru Mike Scott would appear to know all the tricks. The knack of twisting one of those deft barely remembered pop vocal melodies round a cascade of sound and over a bedrock of bottom. It’s all quite ridiculous of course, and preposterously silly. You can discern snatches of Dylan voicings and phraseology here and there, and the whole thing is adept at giving you impressions instead of realities, in the same way that U2 got away with their ill-defined impassioned bluster on Boy. I expect to thoroughly enjoy this rubbish for six months or so. 5/10

 

Weather Girls – It’s Raining Men (CBS) 12-inch single

1983/TOM

You’re right. There’s nothing new here. So what? ‘It’s Raining Men’ is a great big slab of orthodox disco/soul which would be quite ordinary but for two important characteristics: the song and the singing. It’s funny, exuberant and lusty. The Weather Girls (ex-Two Tonnes Of Fun) sing up a storm, so even without the song this would have been at least a cut above average. For some inexplicable reason that only the radio programmers know, this isn’t a Number 1. I want to know why. 7/10

Cassell Webb – Songs Of A Stranger (Venture)

1990/RTR Countdown

Country and folk songs beautifully interpreted by pristine English lass and her sound colourist. 6/10

The Weeds – Wheatfields/Trouble (Flying Nun 7” single)

The best thing about this novelty release is the back cover photo of a scrawny bunch of men and a caption ‘Feed the Weeds – Do they know it’s Christmas?’ A bit unseasonal, in any case, but the A-side itself is a lot of fun, albeit consisting of a two-chord dirge with no musical bridge. The Weeds were a conglomeration of people from bands such as The Bats and The DoubleHappys. The B-side, ‘Trouble’, is recorded live, and horribly. 5/10

When The Cat’s Away – When The Cat’s Away (CBS)

1987/Evening Post

When The Cat’s Away is a live recording representing the recent tour by five of New Zealand’s most well-known female vocalists, Dianne Swann, Debbie Harwood, Kim Willoughby, Margaret Urlich and Annie Crummer.

Never intended as a recording proposition, the album goes some way to transferring the live pizazz, but the sound could do with some visuals. The professionalism is never in doubt, but this collection of cover versions stands or fails on the songs and the renditions thereof.

Prince’s ‘1999’ is a non-starter because the perfunctory performance of the backing band lacks the punch of the original’s highly-produced whammo treatment. Besides, it’s not a song crying out for vocal embellishment. The Beatles’ ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ is worse, being redolent of countless cabaret acts.

The temporary aggregation only come into their own when they get cheeky. ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘You Haven’t Done Nothing’, while far from definitive readings, work well in context.

It’s gratifying to hear versions of two Split Enz songs, ‘I Walk Away’ and ‘Shark Attack’, as New Zealand-penned songs are seldom interpreted by other artists. The Cats could have consolidated their appeal by including more local material.

I guess you just had to be there. 5/10

Whitesnake – Slip Of The Tongue (EMI)

1990/RTR Countdown

Mainstream American-market oriented metal with a definite plus in Steve Vai’s fretboard punishment. Ex-Deep Purpler David Coverdale could do worse, and has. 5/10

The Who – Face Dances (Polygram)

1981/In Touch

Face Dances is The Who sounding irrelevant. Fans will like the album, as the recognisable trademarks are present. But there is precious little fire or passion in the music: most of the material sounds tired and trivial. Me, I liked the sincerity of Townshend’s solo LP. I liked his voice and the mature approach. With The Who, Townshend always fights the old battles: adolescence-going-on-middle-age/rock’n’roll, sex drugs and booze versus family responsibilities and spirituality. The songs are literally mostly about The Who and Pete Townshend, and they are lyrically inadequate at that. To compound matters, the songs are filtered through the trying vocal dramatics of actor Daltrey. As for bassist Entwistle’s two songs, they would have been better utilised on a solo LP. 5/10

 

Deneice Williams – When Love Comes Calling (CBS)

1979/Evening Post

A classy soul album by sweet-voiced singer – her voice is reminiscent of the late Minnie Ripperton – who had a hit last year with Johnny Mathis (‘Too Much Too Little Too Late’). 7/10

 

Witchfynde – Stagefright (RTC)

1981/In Touch

No wonder they’ve got stagefright! This lot are Britain’s answer to early Grant Funk Railroad. In fact, they’re worse! Witchfynde are so bad you’ve gotta hear it to believe it. RTC, what’s got into ya? 1/10

 

 

Bobby Womack – So Many Rivers (MCA)

1986/Evening Post

Womack reaches out to his audience with the true blue humility of a human heart that’s felt much of what life has to offer, and given as much back. His evolving soul of the old school gives a refreshingly humane perspective on the things that make or break happy lives. But too often the backing is dominated by artificial instrumentation, which fails to offer the right rounded foil to Womack’s fat, phlegmy voice, and too often the material slips into sentiment. The compensations are many, however, and one has to go no further than the first track, ‘I Wish He Didn’t Trust Me So Much’, to get some unfettered soul in a song in which the singer is seriously tempted to get serious with his best friend’s wife. 6/10

 

Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July (Motown)

1980/Evening Post

Hotter Than July marks the 20th year in the recording career of Stephen Judkins Hardaway, aka Stevland Morris, aka ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder.

This prompt follow-up to last year’s disastrous The Secret Life Of Plants sees the return of Wonder’s joie de vivre. It’s proof positive that Wonder’s on the right track again after several years of aberration.

His spark is strangely muted here, and therefore fires little innovation, but the music is that of a happy, contented man, and it’s great to have him back.

The second side is best, beginning with the incandescent spirit of ‘Masterblaster (Jammin’)’, one of the few bright spots heard on current daytime radio. Notably, it’s an ode to rather than a carbon copy of reggae music.

The album contains no side of Wonder we haven’t really heard before, but that’s no bad thing.

Side 1 is predominantly songs of love and relationships. The lyrics are often banal, Wonder as always balancing precariously but brilliantly on the thin wire between MOR stylishness and easy listening supper-club schmaltz.

The ethereal, superbly-crafted (as is the whole album) ‘Rocket Love’ can make one float in its euphoria, or wince at its cliched blandness, depending on the mood. 7/10

The Wonder Stuff – Hup (Polydor)

1990/RTR Countdown

Sparkling English pop music with charming melodies, smart-arse lyrics, and a full-throttle energetic musical base are as rare as fleas on the Queen’s corgis. Which is why The Wonder Stuff are pretty bloody wonderful. Need convincing? Steal a listen to their debut album, Hup, and you’ll see what I mean. They’re not straining for indescribable originality, but that’s part of their ever-so-slightly familiar charm. And if you, like I am, sick of sick radio, you’ll just love ‘Radio Ass Kiss’, in which our boys slag off the bastards for caring about nothing but ratings. 7/10

Ronnie Wood – Cancel Everything (Possum)

1986/Evening Post

These rusty old sessions by current Rolling Stones string-stroker Wood must have taken some digging up, as I presume Wood would have unceremoniously chucked them at the time.

Someone out there may remember Rod Stewart’s old band The Faces, and the dreadful, shambling, utterly forgettable sludge they offered up as albums. It was all very amiable and we’re the lads together rock and rawl, but without Rod and an audience, the result was lacklustre and even, at times, inept.

Cancel Everything reminds me of The Faces, and if the archive robbers at Possum Records had any style or humour they would at least have called it Rusty Wood. But never mind. It’s friendly, familiar, choogling, drunken rock performed by a bunch of sessioneers who seem to be in such a state of blithe mellowness that they can’t quite get things cooking.

The sound is muted and very clean, and methinks they never got around to putting overdubs on the basic tracks. Several feature Rod and Mick and Co on vocals. Fanatics only. 2/10

Working With Walt – The Prophet (Jayrem)

1984/TOM

This was going to be a review of the label only, as that’s what we got sent. Apparently, the first batch were faulty, and the labels made cup coasters of.

Well, the label’s not nearly as pretty as the Eelman Pelicans coaster my piping coffee cup straddles day in and out. Let’s face it, the Jayrem logo wouldn’t win any awards for aesthetic beauty. And it’s just too garish and boring to be kitsch.

The other remarkable thing about this label is that the two songs (one side each) on this 12” EP are laid out like this: 1. THE PROPHET – and over on the other side – 1. UNFAMILIAR WAY. Now, if there was more than one song per side this numbering system would prove sensible, but…

As for the music. Well. It’s. How you say? Suffering identity crisis. Nice idea and all that, using acoustic guitars, and a worthy song, but where does that leave us? 6/10

Working With Walt – Five Sides (Jayrem)

1986/Wellington City

Proving that the entire population of Dunedin aren’t genetic throwbacks to Lou Reed’s forebears, Working With Walt’s second EP finds an altogether better musical constitution than WWW MkI. The mix positively rings: adding to the driving drums are well-recorded flourishes of acoustic piano and guitar and excellent ensemble vocals like wot good pop groups should have. And hardly ever do these days. ‘Christina’ is the dud, and ‘Pound Of Flesh’ is the goods. Extra star because I didn’t expect it to be any good. 7/10

World Party – Private Revolution (Chrysalis)

1987/Evening Post

Maybe it was just a bad mood. But I could think of better things to do than sitting here, freezing in front of a one-bar heater, listening to another pop record spending a figurative penny on my senses.

Not so many years ago, reviewing records wasn’t such a dispiriting task. You tolerated the mundane because there was always something better to look forward to in that pile of black vinyl.

In 1987, most of that pile is taken up with sounds that fail to make an identifiable musical statement. It’s not bad; in fact, the talent that is going into many of these records is substantial. But it’s lacking impact.

Much of the snap and crackle has gone from pop, and the industry has been left with a complex infrastructure of musical reference points under which brews a rather pallid, murky-tasting base mixture.

Now, before you dismiss my opinion as the ravings of a reviewer simply too tired and jaded to get excited about pop anymore, I’ll provide a couple of examples.

Take Karl Wallinger. He means well. His lyrics are mostly about ecological issues, and other problems that threaten the Earth and the animals on it. Karl’s band is World Party and its record is Private Revolution. We have a few things in common, Karl and me; most notably, growing up with an older sister who introduced our ears to all sorts of fantastic music.

Unlike myself, however, Karl was born in Wales and ended up in The Waterboys. World Party – like Matt Johnson’s The The – is Karl Wallinger.

Private Revolution is creatively programmed and sequenced. It includes some quite clever pieces of music. There’s nothing identifiably wrong with the record (except for the lyrics, but we’ll get to that soon). My only observation after several sessions with it is its sad lack of magic and meaning.

Karl comes up with lyrics like: “No need to worry/No need to cry/Cos we’re all going to be on the same side? When we learn/To make love to the world.”

So he’s a space-age hippy, but that shouldn’t discount his worth.

There’s a Dylan song, ‘All I Really Want To Do’, and a detectable Dylan influence at work here, just as with The Waterboys. But even that’s not enough to damn him.

Somewhere along the way, Karl has become consumed by his influences to a point where he’s unable to make any broad strokes of his own. He’s living in a pop industry in which strands of different types of music have been wedged together, but in which its context – in a musical and cultural sense – has been lost.

To add to Karl’s problem – and that of a whole generation of new-age musicians – is an affliction kindly noted as Studio Blight. Sometimes incarceration in the studio produces masterpieces, but unfortunately, since bands began creating their songs in recording studios, the cutting edge has gone from popular music as a living, thriving folk form.

A clear division has arisen between those bands who make a living from live performance and those whose careers are based on their recorded product. Once it was performances that began the process, then it was the combination of the two. Now, one set of musicians creates its art in the studio, and on-demand artificially recreates forgeries on the stage for adoring fans.

The other set devotes their energies to performance but seldom is it a creative act. These bands give the audience a good time, but they’re not doing anything new, just working within well-defined showbiz traditions. 5/10

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