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 ‘A’.
AC/DC – Highway To Hell (Atlantic)
An uninspired but workman-like album by the Australian high energy heavy rock group. 6/10
The Angels – No Exit (Albert)
Another Aussie outfit, Sydney-based The Angels display much potential on No Exit. Catch them at their best on ‘I Can’t Shake It’ and ‘Mr Damage’ on which they fall somewhere between the hard rock of The Doors, the twin-guitar heroics of Thin Lizzy, and the intelligently neurotic angst of Lou Reed. It’s a calculated exercise, but their popularity in Australia shows they’re going about it in the right way. 7/10
Memory Man (Sony/BMG)
It’s not easy to pin Aqualung, and that’s got to be a good thing. Sure, Matt Hales’ project could be compared in part to Radiohead and Coldplay and other recent British bands of a slightly old-fashioned (and perhaps overly morbid) disposition like Elbow, and there’s a little bit of blue-eyed soul which connects them, perhaps, to fellow technologically enabled Scottish group the Blue Nile. But I wouldn’t have thought of that had Memory Man not included a guest vocal by the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan.
But just as the Blue Nile did in the ‘80s with their Linn-associated debut, A Walk Across The Rooftops, Aqualung have made an album for their own era that disposes of conventional instrumentation in favour of synthetic equivalents, while talking to its listeners from an adult perspective rather than the usual terminal adolescence that blights rock’n’roll.
Aqualung does play ‘real’ instruments; it’s just that here they’ve gone crazy with a variety of instruments and simulations thereof, and then thrown every special effect that computer programmes and contemporary recording studio technology can come up with. Don’t get me wrong, this is not wild or radical music, and the group use their effects with economy and restraint. It’s just that they’ve come up with a different spin from an audio point of view.
Hales’ songs are partly negative state-of-the-world diatribes and partly more hopeful personal songs (the album was inspired by the recent birth of his son), but what really separates them from the pack is the dynamic way the songs are recorded. While most current pop music is compressed sonically so that a song will sound pretty much as loud all the way through, Aqualung songs have really quiet bits that suddenly explode in huge guitar riffs or crashing crescendos. So quite apart from whether the songs are any good or not, this makes for an aurally exciting listen. But the songs are good, and those who enjoy a well-crafted adult-oriented pop song with a dose of drama and passion will enjoy this rather good record. 7/10
Three words fairly sum up Joan Armatrading and her music: quality, style and sensuality.
Steppin’ Out, recorded during a recent North American tour, provides ample evidence of the lady’s “live” magic – a magic which Wellingtonians can witness in person this month.
British (formerly West Indian) singer/songwriter Armatrading’s live album is a worthy sample of her material, and an invaluable document/souvenir of the artist in concert.
Taking songs from her five studio albums, she ranges from the jazz-flavoured ‘Cool Blue Stole My Heart’ and the powerful ‘Tall In The Saddle’ to the sensual hit ‘Love And Affection’ and a spirited version of ‘Mama Mercy’.
Her band add tastefully rock-based backing, which unfortunately but only occasionally submerges subtleties in Armatrading’s distinctive voice – a voice which is at once delicately supple, raunchy and strident.
The Armatrading persona is one of warmth and humility, the talent unassumingly original. 7/10
Ashford & Simpson – Stay Free (Warner)
An old-fashioned soul record with disco inflexions. Beautifully produced, and great sound quality. 6/10
Azymuth (Far Out/Southbound)
There’s a peculiar type of music fan who spends his time scavenging grotty old slabs of vinyl for that special groove or riff or antiquated sound. Invariably, he’s a would-be DJ who harbours a desire to sample said musical nugget and extract it to a contemporary club context. The first album by Brazilian group Azymuth – languishing unreleased in the West from its first appearance in 1975 until this Far Out label remaster – is a perfect example of vinyl scavenger nirvana.
In no way is it anything particularly special, despite liner notes that claim its ‘legendary’ status. By and large, these are low-key, relaxed slices of Latin jazz-fusion ordinariness. Its compositions are forgettable, and outside of a certain slinkiness, it lacks character. But it’s a goldmine because its arrangements and performances are superb; crucially, it comes from a time when analogue synthesisers sounded really fruity, and the technology, combined with fluid Latin rhythms, makes for moments of DJ bliss.
Hence the second CD of remixes by contemporary DJ/producers, including NZ-based American Recloose, As One (aka Kirk De Giorgio), Marc Mac (4 Hero) and others famous in their own tiny orbit. In some instances, the raw track is simply subjected to a sprinkling of fairy dust, but more commonly, these tracks contain mere fragments of the original pieces. The contrast between the two discs provides an interesting comparison between the analogue world of ‘70s real-room multi-track recording and the digital environment of the present.
By and large, these are excellent slices of current dance-floor-oriented music with just enough of a Latin vibe to create the right atmosphere for some private dancing; and audio buffs who turn their noses up at ‘electronic’ music might be surprised at just how mouth-watering these synthetic derivatives are, with real depth and heft to the bass and outstanding imaging. It’s rare for remix projects to have any merit, but this one, which stylistically veers from techno to house to jazzy electronica, is a delight pretty much over its entire 58 minutes. 7/10