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
A Certain Ratio – To Each… (Factory)
May 1982/In Touch
A Certain Ratio harness and discipline the ethereal. The ‘Flight’ 12-inch was astounding in its surreal, Joy Derivative trippiness. ACR’s first LP, To Each… is a series of evocative sounds tied to a curiously inhibited funk. Criticisms: Martin Hannett’s stiff production, the music’s occasional indulgences. Praise: Buy it and feel your aura dancing. Warning: Sensitive stereo systems avoid ‘Winter Hill’. 7/10
“Antmusic for sexpeople/Sexmusic for antpeople/You may not like it now but you will/(The future will not stand still).” – ‘Don’t Be Square Be There.’
The future will certainly not stand still for Adam and his Ants who are very much this month’s thing. They are so very gimmick-laden that although it is simple to deduce their appeal, they will surely be left high and dry as the world moves on to the next fad.
Adam was formerly a fashion punk who favoured bondage clothing and Nazi regalia. His early Ants were not successful, and when Sex Pistols entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren stole the group from under his feet, Adam set about forming a new Ants lineup and devising a new strategy.
Adam has it all worked out. He has taken a token tribalism (in particular that of the American Indian) and brought it home to the people, who of course, desire to belong to something.
Better Adam’s brave new order – sexpeople, true warriors, kings of the wild frontier (“A new royal family, a wild nobility”) – than the drudgery of everyday life and dreary fatalism of realistic modern music. Or is it?
His songs are juvenile in essence and utterly simplistic. The high points are ‘Don’t Be Square Be There’, ‘Ants Invasion’, and hit single ‘Dog Eat Dog’, a track with double-drum attack and production effort that obviously has not gone into the rest of the album.
And as for their use of old Shadows-type outtakes for guitar backing… 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
Joan Armatrading’s earthy sensuality – that deep, strong yet vulnerable voice – made the trip worth our while. We could only ever take her in small doses, the strangeness of the song constructions and general wordiness created in us but a token demand.
Armatrading is no longer an acquired taste. It’s all milk and honey these days. Easy to swallow. Smooth and easy is the password and to be honest, much of Walk Under Ladders passes by again and again without making much of an impression.
Where before one wondered whether the idiosyncrasies were surmountable, now it appears that the easily assimilated new JA approach may have little worth beneath the groove. Her current thing is exquisitely crafted MOR pop songs, with that ideal blend of textured acoustic/electric counterpoint she’s given us all along.
My main quibble is that the songs are lyrically inane, all trivial sex matters that no-one bar JA and boyfriends will want to know about. She’s a long way behind the enlightened feminism of The Slits or The Raincoats.
Most catchy tune is ‘Romancers’. Ignore the criticisms and get into the late-nite mellow groove of it all. Delusions never hurt anyone, did they? 6/10
Ashford & Simpson – Stay Free (Warner)
An old-fashioned soul record with disco inflexions. Beautifully produced, and great sound quality. 6/10
Aspic – Absconded Damply (no label)
This record makes for interesting listening on those rare occasions in which find it possible to take a nosedive over musical preconceptions. Other times it merely seems incomprehensible. Absconded Damply is an amateurish home recording originating from the Auckland duo (?) who when we last heard them went by the name A Second Nose. (I could stand corrected on this rumoured information). The LP sounds as if it was recorded on a cheap cassette deck in the lounge of a flat with budgie chirping in the background and cooking smells wafting through. Taken in parts (there are five tracks in all) the disc is very interesting, especially the bits where you can’t tell if the static is dust on the needle or intended music. It’s the one with the plain brown sandpaper cover going cheap in your local record palace. 7/10
The Associates share with label-mates The Cure a line in clean, spare guitar melodies and an indescribably memorable rhythmic song construction. When their debut album The Affectionate Punch was recorded in mid-1980 the group consisted of vocalist/songwriter Billy Mackenzie and guitarist/composer Alan Rankine. The album, recently released here, is a minor masterpiece.
Mackenzie’s voice swoops with ease and peels off high, clear notes with the melodrama of light opera, the passion of soul and the style of Bowie. This voice, combined with the linear sound and insidious hooks of The Associates’ music, makes for much pleasurable listening.
There is a clear standout track in ‘Amused As Always’, with its rollicking rhythm and vocal pyrotechnics. The lyrics, too, are impressively intelligent. In ‘Dogs In The Wild’, which could be a western movie theme tune, Mackenzie tackles the human race for its inhumanity to its own kind: “Even dogs in the wild/Will protect and will care for/Whatever means most to them.”
The Associates need perseverance, but they are worth the effort. 8/10
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