Nutshells – Ephemera & Detritus

NZ Music Reviews, Evening Post, 11-6-87

Every Day In May – Day 1

Winter Music

Wellington City, 1986

Some items for the fireside, music to warm the cockles of your winter heart(h)…

I’m after decent new things. Things that bound up and go WAH! Or just creep up from behind for a sustained impression. Who’s to guess at the midwinter proclivities of this genteel and dignified organ’s cultured readership? Me? I like burying myself in familiar artefacts come the creeping cold season. Layers of mouldy old blankets, warm cats, red wine and favourite records are indispensable when one gets that ancient urge to affect hibernation.

So, then, a review of a few of my favourite things. They could be yours, too. Perhaps they are. It’s a random selection of records, in no particular order, and if I may comment on my own taste (or lack thereof), the two relevant observations are a) It’s not rock and roll and I like it and b) Most of these music-makers are middle-aged, insane or dead.

Cocteau Twins – Treasure (4AD)

Just how much is creation, how much is production? Are their aims true? Could they do it all off the top of their heads? These questions plague the cynical mind. They did, at least, until the spell got me. The Cocteau Twins’ music is so unique, so English, and at times so precious, that one is inclined to scoff. In fact, they are one of the very few English groups doing anything remarkable; and what the Cocteaus dare to do, in a veiled fashion, is use modern technology to assist in the creation of a dream-world that celebrates Englishness. Not patriotically, but in the pre-to-just-post-Christian imagery that somehow assists in a vision of a neglected heritage. Treasure is just that, and much more besides. 1985.

Available locally. 10/10

 

Tim Buckley – Starsailor (Straight)

Starsailor, featuring ‘Song To A Siren’, which This Mortal Coil covered on an album of other people’s songs, is an album of blinding intensity. Buckley lets loose in an overdubbed display of primal yowling set to a primitive backing of snapping snare drum, frantically preening double bass and a squealing sax foaming at its orifice. A record like no other, it’s nothing less than a sexual/spiritual purge, an outright exorcism that even Buckley only remotely had it in him to do ONCE.

  1. Long deleted. Unavailable. This record bombed and Buckley ended up driving taxis, and spinning off his mortal coil in 1975. 10/10

 

Roy Harper – Stormcock (Harvest)

Roy Harper is egotistical, self-important, self-indulgent and more. On Stormcock, he is also belligerently honest, vehemently angry, and self-critical. Its four songs may go on a bit, but they’re never less than passionate, and furiously intelligent. Mainly acoustic guitar gets as savage as can get while remaining a cold shoulder’s distance from the beast Heavy Metal, and on the lyrical strains of ‘Me And My Woman’, Harper’s humility shows all the colours of the rainbow.

  1. Reissued 1986.

 

Holger Czukay – On The Way To The Peak Of Normal (EMI)

Czukay studied under avant figure Stockhausen, played electric bass in innovative minimalist group Can, and solo is a nutty professor with a suitcase full of odd musical tricks. Principally an editor of sound, a sound-collage expert, On The Way To The Peak Of Normal is his most, well… NORMAL record. Surprisingly melodious though with a few too many odd noises for mood freaks, the record sneaks up and mesmerises with its unique blending effect. Didn’t like it for a year. It’s lovely.

  1. German pressings occasionally appear in import bins. 10/10

 

Henry Cow – Legend (Virgin)

Or Leg-end, geddit? Self-deprecating humour from a collective of virtuoso musos from jazz and classical backgrounds, displaying their undisputed instrumental prowess. But that’s not all. Technically stunning, Henry Cow are much more than merely musical masturbators; instead, they subsume ego for a brilliantly restrained tour de force of collective improvisation. From the first listen, Henry Cow music makes perfect sense, and complexities reveal themselves in time. Henry Cow music is a branch of modern music never pursued, probably because it requires a level of creative AND musical excellence, AND discipline, that few are willing to attempt.

  1. Unavailable. American imports turn up occasionally. 10/10

 

Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance (Blank)

The Modern Dance is modern music’s first full-throttled, terrified scream. It’s more scared than scary, but like laughter, fright is contagious. It features loud guitar and drums, but ‘rock’ connotations end there; The Modern Dance is a coincidental correlative in musical and lyrical imagery to David Lynch’s film Eraserhead, in which the humour is so dark it’s surprising you can still see the screen. Incomparable. And what a noise.

  1. Local EMI pressings were available, now discontinued. Sporadically available. 10/10

 

Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs (Harvest)

Original Pink Floyd music genius? Tragic acid burnout? Do you really care? Barrett is ‘not all there’, but what ‘is there’ is compelling in its naked half-formed form. The Madcap Laughs contains GREAT pop songs, and he as good as throws them away by mumbling and forgetting lines; it’s got to be good for us. Observations, revelations, this man’s fractured innocence suits the times, and the underlying melancholy infiltrates even the ‘happy’ songs.

  1. Unavailable. 10/10

 

Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom (Virgin)

As its title rather more than discretely suggests, Rock Bottom is depressing. Any lower and Wyatt would be joining the deep, dark denizens of the earth’s lowest crust. If YOU played brilliant percussives for a progressive bunch of fellows called the Soft Machine, and one day did a silly thing like falling out a window and crippling yourself for life, wouldn’t YOU be Rock Bottom? Deep melancholy, pain, frustration and the only release – madness – are described in musical terms so vividly that the record might as well be wordless. But it’s the emotive whinge of Whyatt himself that provides the human frailty and resolution. A reality nightmare; ultimately gripping rather than morbid.

  1. Copies still floating around. 10/10

 

 

 

 

 

From In Touch, April 1982:

Most Australian rock wouldn’t win any awards for originality, but several recent releases indicate an improvement in these traditionally stagnant waters. The Models’ uneven Local And/Or General (Mushroom) packs a wallop of sound and many a good idea, and even includes NZer Buster Stiggs doing his drum-kit proud. An exception to the rule. Mental As Anything’s Cats And Dogs (Festival) and Men At Work’s Business As Usual (CBS) are merely acceptable, though both contain pleasing pop songs designed with radio play in mind. Midnite Oil’s Place Without A Postcard (CBS) sadly suffers an identity crisis. Kevin Borich left NZ’s biggest pop group The La De Da’s and crossed the Tasman a decade ago. The guitar hero’s mini-LP Shy Boys/Shy Girls (Stunn) features guest musicians galore but it still sounds like plain fare. So is We Never Close (Polygram) by expatriates The Pink Flamingos. Within Hello Sailor Dave McArtney wrote some brilliant material (their two albums are true classics) but on the second Flamingos fling the material is largely tired and the performances uninspired. Inside Out (Polygram) by another Hello Sailor chappie, vocalist Graham Brazier, is an altogether classier affair. Very much in the Sailor mold, this album is of international standard… Black American soul/funk puts a lot of the new British wave to shame, although it has a tendency towards gloss and showbiz that’s decidedly tacky at times. Disco pioneers Chic spring back to form on Take It Off (Atlantic), a cool, smooth groove. Earth, Wind And Fire overdose on the mystical but come out smiling on Raise (CBS), which is more of the same belting clean horny club-soul sandwich. The Jacksons’ Live (Epic) double set has them perform an entire show which, if one survives the schmaltzy presentation, delivers reasonable versions of the best out of both Michael’s and the brother’s catalogues. Was (Not Was) (Ze Records) are the latest thang from Noo Yoik. Though I’m told their debut has loads of socio-political relevance and many highly-regarded contributors, it still sounds disjointed and largely unpalatable to yours truly. Taste and try before you buy. Mesopotamia (WEA) is the second B52’s mini-album. Talking Heads’ David Byrne produced the disc, which although no great progression is a satisfying rhythmic dance mix… Wherefore art thou, new wave? Ireland’s U2 submit more of their joyous, spiritually-inclined rock on October (Island). A virtual re-run of the first album Boy, it’s also just as good. Their music may be conventional, but that’s not the point. U2 really do have soul. The Bureau are an off-shoot of soul rebels Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Their debut Only For Sheep (WEA) will please those hooked on the sound, but their songwriting needs development. Simultaneously more populist but less popular than Echo & The Bunnymen, contemporaries The Sound offer From The Lion’s Mouth (WEA) – hardly compulsory listening but worthy of investigation. Gosh It’s… Bad Manners (Magnet) shows that ska’n’b duffers Buster Bloodvessel and Co can come up with the musical goods when required, despite popular belief. It’s apparent that they’re neither dunces nor a fad; neither is their wanton musical schizophrenia ultimately inspired. See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah! City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! (RCA) is the title of the Bow Wow Wow record. BWW being another Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols mastermind media manipulator) concept and this their first fling. The meaty Burundi beat and vocals of 15-year old Annabella Lwin are loadsa fun but become tedious over 40 minutes. Androgynous ex-heavy pap flashers Japan come up with a genuinely quirky if fraudulent one-off in Tin Drum (Virgin). Though Eno did the Chinese stories much better on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) in 1974, methinks this Japan noodle will grace many a varied turntable in 1982. The Stranglers grind onwards with La Folie (Liberty), a strangely muted followup to last year’s weirdo The Meninblack. If anything, it’s a step into the past. Prince Charming (CBS) is the ridiculous new concept from Adam & The Ants. This is cluttered kitsch at its best/worst. Love it or leave it alone. Fools Rush In Where Angels Dare To Tread (RTC) is a patchy, nominally interesting compilation from the Blitz club Cabaret Futura. Insubstantial. Fourth Drawer Down (Beggar’s Banquet) deserves and requires the absorption method. Though it takes time the second Associates album is worth every minute. Apart from the highly original approach the group takes to its music, there is the unparalleled magnificence of Billy Mackenzie’s soaring voice to stun one. King Crimson can never again be quite as important an entity as they were (uncredited) in the early ‘70s. The original records are required listening for any serious music fan. The reformed group have Discipline (EG) and it’s more to do with funky Talking Heads-type sounds than anything. Did I mention that it’s also musically brilliant? Crimson mainman Robert Fripp has his second solo guitar Frippertronics LP, Let The Power Fall (EG). Like God Save The Queen before it, the disc is a haunting addition to adventurous record collections… Cedric Myton & The Congos follow their 1977 classic with Face The Music (EMI). It’s in a similar peaceful reggae vein. Last and definitely least is the long-feared solo debut from ex-Emerson Lake & Palmer bassist/vocalist, Greg Lake (Chrysalis). I always had a soft spot for tunes like ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘In The Beginning’, but here Lake summons plain cliché after plain cliché.

 

From TOM, 1983:

Savage Republic – Tragic Figures (IPR)

Kommunity FK – Kommunity FK (IPR)

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 vein 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 on the brain. Still… interesting. If you want more information, contact Independent Project Records, Box 66103, LA, Calif, 90066, USA.

 

From TOM, 1983:

 

Rock’s rotten corpse

I always had a soft spot for techno-rock: King Crimson’s terrific metal riffs and fantastic contrasts, and the ridiculous bombast of early ELP. Keith Emerson alone had the good sense to retire in semi-dignity to the Bahamas, taking his big grands with him. Yes, meanwhile, are strutting their dreadful stuff again, and sounding very desperate on 90125 (Atco). Thankfully devoid of Roger Dean’s inhibiting cover artwork, they’ve inexplicably hauled in modern pap producer (ABC, you know the score) Trevor Horn, perhaps in a bid to capture a slice of rich mega-success brats Asia’s audience. Instead, the questionably revived rehashed Yes Lineup sounds like a thinking person’s Hawkwind, and in that fashion can be viewed as pseudo entertaining low art trash.

Now The Doors have dignity! Of course they have an advantage: Jim Morrison can NEVER GROW OLD. As for the other Doors, they spend their time not doing much and occasionally discovering long lost live tapes just in time for the Christmas market. Alive She Cried (Elektra) is such an album – the second live Doors on vinyl – and though lacking the electric hysteria of Absolutely Live, it’s still a varied and solid representation of one of the great ‘rock’ bands. Their rendition of Them’s ‘Gloria’ to an empty hall is a half-way house revelation between the original and Patti’s radical Horses version. ‘Light My Fire’ is as perfect and sinewy as the studio version with an abundance of extra atmosphere. From there it’s all downhill, in a sense, as the rest of the album presents the lighter side of The Doors: punchy versions of minor gems like ‘You Make Me Real’, ‘Moonlight Drive’ and ‘Love Me Two Times’, and a great token blooz workout on ‘Little Red Rooster’.

Feel like hearing some rock music so boring, so pedestrian, that it’s impossible not to fall asleep after 40 minutes of it? Right this way, suckers! John Cougar-Mellencamp’s Uh-huh (WEA) is trad(e)-rock updated for the decade of Corporate Rock. While Corporate Rock, just like Big Government, produces nothing of substance or value, personalities from within can have a few laughs, because, generally, Big is Dumb. Cougar, then, knows it’s all bullshit, and he plays with the form, as in ‘Play Guitar’: “All women around the world want a phony rock star who plays guitar/You can pump your iron and shine your shoes/And you wear your hair just right/You go down out on crusin’ street/Cause you want to score tonight/Ra da ra da ra da da/And you really want to show your scars/Forget all about that macho shit/And learn how to play guitar.” Well, whoever promised great poetry?

And whoever guessed The Strolling Bones would be back so soon. Not me! The evidence of their yearly workout for aching old muscles is Under Cover (Rolling Stone Records), an album which could (and I would) be described as a stupid, blatant, offensive, sexist joke. The cover shot is an (almost) full frontal of what looks like a discarded Stones groupie. Yesterday’s revolutionaries (sic) as today’s sex’n’violence wankers. With titles like ‘Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)’ and ‘Pretty Beat Up’ the songs seem more obnoxious than they are: they are mostly about sex, but they’re mostly just silly blunt juvenile rubbish masquerading as oh-so-clever parody. And what of the music? Of course the Stones died at least as far back as ’72, but here the artificial resuscitation’s in the form of a New York (almost-) streetwise mixing job, and random inputs from the likes of Sly Dunbar. There are no songs, just a bunch of backing tracks fleshed out with ‘contemporary’ sounds and that horrible static Stones groan that makes every track last at least half an hour. Don’t bother with the letter bomb, I’m on holiday.

Unashamed pop for teens, Duran Duran’s Seven And The Ragged Tiger (EMI) holds no magic for me, but then I’m too old. It’s an album of songs, the production of which sounds pared down for small stereos and radio play. The songs lack the immediacy of ‘Planet Earth’ or the disco exuberance of a ‘Girls On Film’, but avoid emulating past successes. Their medium-cooked pop plays with a little mystery and faked imagination and generally plays safe. Can we demand anything more? The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is one of my fave albums, and I’ll always remember how long that took me to cultivate a liking for, when attempting rush judgment on new pop albums. It’s certainly not as likeable, but then pure pop disappeared with the Monkees. Someone might love this record.

Funky But Dead

Nineteen eighty-three has been a scary year for fans of bands heretofore known as cult new wave items. All kinds of sell-outs all over the place, and so blatant! Words like commitment and dignity (that word again) were used but little. But what about the Gang Of Four? I repeat: a scary year. There is of course nothing wrong with good disco or good funk, but when you can look to America for most of the best of these genres, why bother with British? And the damning thing is: Most of the disco/pop/funk/whatever these groups use works actively against what they’ve done previously, to the extent, in my case, where I can’t stand to listen to anything by Cabaret Voltaire, The Cure, The Banshees or the Gang Of Four anymore. GO4’s ‘Is It Love?’ (EMI) 12” single-from-the-album is smooth, uneventful, bland funk/soul which is as pleasant as it is characterless.

New Order has trod a different track, not wildly different, but admirable. This year’s already seen the mighty ‘Blue Monday’ (still on the charts!) and a largely duff second album. And just to confuse, ‘Confusion’, four versions of the same song co-written and produced by Arthur Baker in New York, and a further illustration of their technical superiority and refined sensibility. As expected, it’s a move away from the clipped British synth-sound to a more human totality. I’m continually surprised that New Order continues to challenge and interest.

Various Kiwi Graveyard Interpretations

Much more entertaining is Capital Kaos (Jayrem), a compilation of the Wellington punk fests this year and featuring lots of Wellington bands, and a smattering of others (including Auckland’s No Tag). Recording quality ain’t good (whaddya expect?), and most of the time the blunk rants are unintentionally funny. A lot of it’s bad and largely uninventive (musically), but it achieves its aims: a rough-as-guts ragey sampler of some of NZ’s new punk bands.

Flesh D-Vice, one of the Wellington bands on Kapital Kaos, have released their own EP, 12” Of Hard Flesh (Jayrem). Well recorded, tight and heavy, this release shows that, if nothing else, NZ can produce bands of this type at least as well as Britain. Titles like ‘Kill That Girl’ and the obvious connotation of the title beg the question: Is this band the product of Catholic upbringing? This one will sell and sell.

Diatribe, the band on the soundtrack to Patu, have a real summer sound in Too Lazy (Warrior), an EP’s worth blend of soul, ska and reggae. Nothing too heavy, striking or radical. It is catchy, danceable and feels just right.

Did I hear someone whisper Invercargill? Say Yes To Apes appears to come from there. Who’s That? (Flying Nun) is so many snatches of pseudo-Dunedin Velvets mutated portastudio sound that it’s all quite difficult to get a grip upon, but the mixture is inventive, and I feel I’ll grow fond of this dreamy, eclectic EP.

The best berry on the branch, though, is Marie And The Atom’s Yellow Read Aloud (Flying Nun) which, despite its cover artwork pretensions, is just packed with a spare intensity and loads of atmosphere. This music casts a spell, and while staying refreshingly away from the smell of rock is quite unselfconscious about its choice of ambient and experimental form and instrumentation from classical, jazz and country backgrounds. A gem of a record – making the best use of banjos and violins that I’ve heard in ages – the only pity is its brevity. Listen especially to the haunting ‘Isol’.

 

Ancient Album Reviews #3 – December 1987, Evening Post.

 

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