Record Review: The Explorers [part 2]

[…continued from last post]

The playful “Venus De Milo” was superficially a stab at the same vibe of an early Roxy Music classic like “Virginia Plain,” but where the Roxy debut single was by turns playful and witty, it also had a seriously post-modern undercurrent that made it startling and new. It was clearly the work of serious minds [with all of their advanced theories] at play. “Venus De Milo”, by comparison, is at best a pastiche of that approach, but at least it proved that Manzanera and MacKay weren’t dour sticks in the mud. How could they be with lyrics [presumably by vocalist James Wraith] featuring howlers like:

“When I saw you standing in the Louv-ré
I coundn’t say I just wanna talk to-ya” – “Venus De Milo”

Well, you try to rhyme “Louvre.” Nevertheless, they did go there.

“Soul Fantasy” was driven by MOR sax maneuvers overlaid on a retro 50s bobbysox pastiche replete with “shoop dooby do-wahs.” If it does not recall any specific Roxy number, then at the very least it comes within striking distance of Ferry’s cover of “It’s My Party” minus his earth shattering sense of irony. More than anything, it was probably an outgrowth of MacKay’s covering “Wild Weekend” on his “In Search Of Eddie Riff” solo album.

Not everything here was informed by their own past. A few Roxy contemporaries got the treatment as well. “Crack The Whip” was the B-side of the non-LP single “Falling For Nightlife” and was included  [with its 12″ A-side] as a bonus track on the CD of this album. The glamrock DNA of T-Rex was given a try with Manzanera’s boogie riffs not miles away from those on “Get It On [Band A Gong].” The phasing on Wraith’s vocals in the intro gave it a little something more exotic. Maybe Bowie-esque with hints of the boogie woogie swagger of “TVC15” or even the intro to “Changes” informing the vibe here.

Roxy fans pining for the sequel to “A Song For Europe” need have looked no further than the dignified and ornate “Prussian Blue.” This one held up to some scrutiny. Along with “Ship Of Fools” and “Breath Of Life” it was one of the clear and uncompromised successes that this album had to offer. Roxy alumnus Alan Spenner’s smoky fretless bass meant that this time out the band could go toe to toe with their bastard scions like Japan and not get egg on their faces. The poise and restraint of this number as it marched along to its preordained doom was clearly the work of adults at the top of their field.

Sadly, the single “Two Worlds Apart,” in spite of its garish, post New Romantic cover art [see right – courtesy of Visage mainstays Robin Beeche and Phyllis Cohen] completely failed to live up to the promise of its florid visuals. It was definitely the most leaden, MOR song on the album. Only the coda, with Guy Fletcher’s plaintive synths juxtaposed by a tasteful Manzanera solo managed to recall some of the class inherent in an album like “Flesh + Blood.”

“You Go Up In Smoke” was another dip into the Ferry themebook of fatalistic, doomed romance. With Wraith pulling every possible nuance of an actual Ferry performance out of his bag of tricks, it could have been a B-side from a “Boys + Girls” single. At the end of the day, MacKay’s pained oboe managed to take center stage to bring the LP edition of the album to a sombre climax.

Finally, the non-LP 12″ mix of “Falling For Nightlife” closed out the CD version of this album on a wildly upbeat note. Listen to the spectacle of members of Roxy Music beating Duran Duran at their own game! Or: members of Roxy Music imitating younger musicians imitating Roxy Music!! Did the top of your head just pop off? At the end of the day, my biggest concern is that while the makers of this single were clearly aware of “The Reflex,” the end results were actually better [such as they were] so I’m fine with it. The mix by John [“Sensoria”] Potoker used the same Fairlight®-centric mixing techniques that Nile Rodgers and Duran explored on “The Reflex.” They even had the cheek to use a sample of a man saying “here is the sound of a tiger” with tiger’s roar. I’ll bet when Duran Duran heard this [and you know they did], they were kicking themselves that they were not this obvious back in 1983, a year of blatancy.

I won’t mince words. When I bought this in 1985, I was clearly smitten with this album. It’s unerring sense of self-pastiche was musical catnip to my much younger ears and the fact that critics of the era snubbed it as mere sub-Ferry also-rans probably contributed to my overarching sense of standing up for this record. Besides, I have never shied away from faux Ferry action of any kind! Even in now, it still has some currency with me, but heard critically today, it was clearly the work of Roxy second bananas slumming in the wake of yet another Roxy Music rupture. I would not be surprised if much of the proceedings had actually been comprised of rejected Roxy Music demos.  As we can see, Ferry was very protective of Roxy publishing space with Manzanera and MacKay allowed scant opportunities to write. This album may have represented six years worth of pent up Roxy Music demos from the pens of Manzanera + MacKay. Maybe even more.

I’ve painted Wraith as a Ferry-clone without peer, and when he puts his mind to it, none come closer to the mark than Wraith on this album, but the fact is that he has a higher top end than Mr. Ferry, who can’t quite belt in the higher register as Wraith does in places here. Alternatively, his playful insouciance, as evidenced on his frisky emphasis on the word “horizons” in the final chorus of “Robert Louis Stevenson” was a move that Ferry would not have made in a million years. Ultimately, The Explorers one shot fell on deaf ears, leaving the group’s second album unreleased as they were dropped from Virgin after the non-event status of “Falling For Nightlife.” Of course, all of the sophomore album material eventually surfaced a few years later, but that’s another story for another day.

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Record Review: The Explorers [part 1]

Virgin | UK | CD | 1985 | CDV 2341

The Explorers: The Explorers UK CD [1985]

  1. Ship Of Fools
  2. Lorelei
  3. Breath Of Life
  4. Venus De Milo
  5. Soul Fantasy
  6. Crack The Whip
  7. Prussian Blue
  8. Two Worlds Apart
  9. Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. You Go Up In Smoke
  11. Falling For Nightlife [Midnight Mix]

I recall first encountering The Explorers; the Phil Manzanera/Andy MacKay post-Roxy Music project on an episode of MTV’s “London Calling.” They interviewed the band and showed their debut video, “Lorelei,” albeit split in half with an interview segment. The singer was some guy called James Wraith, but wow, did he ever sound like Bryan Ferry! I was intrigued, as I was certainly a Roxy Music fan, though not to the extent I would probably be in a couple of years. As I recall, the reviews all kneecapped the album; particularly in light of the Ferry-by-the-numbers vocals. It was some time in 1985, after entering the CD era, that I ran across a cheap import copy of the Explorer’s album at the then-radical CD-only store in Altamonte Springs, Florida called Digital Sounds. It was around twelve dollars, so being curious to hear it for myself, I took the bait.

I played it when I got home and was immediately floored by the opening track. Following a slow, Manzanera-led buildup in the long intro, “Ship of Fools” began the album with a stormy intensity that had been missing from Roxy Music for at least a decade. The appearance of Tony Levin on Chapman Stick and Jerry Marotta on drums [the classic Peter Gabriel rhythm section] added even more to the lurching, feverish opener. Manzanera’s serpentine guitar licks were a beat behind the darkly roiling rhythm section and seemed only a hair’s breadth away from the vibe on Bowie’s “Beauty + The Beast.” Yeah. His best song. In fact, the song felt like a perfect mix of that “Heroes” number and the attack found on “peter gabriel [1980].” Which is to say that it was devastatingly powerful! Had this been an actual Roxy Music song, pundits in the press would have wilted from the praise, but hearing Manazanera & MacKay turn themselves into a tribute act with a Ferry clone meant that most listeners just shook their heads and moved on [except for myself]. I say they were mad. Listen!

The next song was segued directly out of the fading embers of “Ship Of Fools.” It was the debut single, “Lorelei.” The effervescent number featured a unique sampled hook that featured broken glass sounds used quite memorably as a percussive accent. It’s almost as if Roxy Music had forgotten that there was no title track for “Siren” so this was made instead, a decade later. Except for its mermaid-referenced title, it has less in common with that ’75 Roxy album but played like some transmission from an alternate universe where “Flesh + Blood” had a larger dose of insouciance than what “Oh Yeah” or “Over You” had originally proffered. On the face of it, the light, airy number was probably a good choice for a debut single though it didn’t win on the charts.

Next came a number that seriously upped the drama quotient. While not quite as fervid as the opening track, “Breath Of Life” still managed to best Ferry at his own Post-“Avalon” game. The taut, minimal excursion was held in place largely by MacKay’s dignified oboe with James Wraith’s perfectly mannered vocal getting only occasional support from a surgical lick here and there by Manzanera. The synth bass by keyboardist Guy [Dire Straits] Fletcher contributed to the inexorable pacing of it all, and the overriding, desperate melancholy was profound. It certainly bested Ferry while at anything but the very top of his game. Well played, gents. Well played indeed.

Next: …And Now For Something Completely Different


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Record Review: Ramones – It’s Alive

Sire ‎| US | CD | 1995 | 9 46045-2

Ramones: It’s Alive US CD [1995]

  1. Rockaway Beach
  2. Teenage Lobotomy
  3. Blitzkrieg Bop
  4. I Wanna Be Well
  5. Glad To See You Go
  6. Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment
  7. You’re Gonna Kill That Girl
  8. I Don’t Care
  9. Sheena Is A Punk Rocker
  10. Havana Affair
  11. Commando
  12. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
  13. Surfin’ Bird
  14. Cretin Hop
  15. Listen To My Heart
  16. California Sun
  17. I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You
  18. Pinhead
  19. Do You Wanna Dance?
  20. Chainsaw
  21. Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World
  22. Now I Wanna Be A Good Boy
  23. Judy Is A Punk
  24. Suzy Is A Headbanger
  25. Let’s Dance
  26. Oh Oh I Love Her So
  27. Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
  28. We’re A Happy Family

I remember when I first heard Ramones’ “It’s Alive.” I was aware that the album was available only as an import; I had seen it in the import bins at the time. An import double album of Ramones was not on my radar in 1979 since I had only just begun buying import albums and a live set by Ramones was not a draw for me. Besides, I only had one Ramones studio album at the time; I still needed more of those! It was a few months later, in early 1980, when I was listening to WUSF-FM on their Friday late night New Wave programming, which I could barely receive a signal on 90 miles away, but if I held my antenna just right for those three hours…

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

The DJ played a suite of songs from side one of “It’s Alive” and the tunes were so short and fast, that it would have been impossible to play just one without screwing up the cueing somehow. The pacing was so breakneck that the DJ ended up playing the first three songs all in a 6:24 clump of Ramones… but no clump ever moved that swiftly!

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

I still didn’t buy “It’s Alive” for years, even after I had most of the Ramones’ albums in the Record Cell. The album was one of Sire’s double live New Wave albums [like “The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads”] that seemed to have gotten lost in the digital shuffle. It finally surfaced on CD in 1990, and I may have seen a copy in the bins at Wax ’N Facts in the early 90s as part of that first Japanese wave of Ramones on CD which predated the silvery discs on our own shores, but I was too smitten with the copies there that day of “Rocket To Russia” and “End Of The Century” to pay any attention! I still didn’t buy “It’s Alive!”

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

Eventually, the CD got a release in 1995 as part of the Warner Archives series, correcting a cosmic wrong. That the most American of bands could not have their first live album released in their home country for 16 years was a head scratcher. But I, as ever, lagged behind. After all, I was still building a Ramones album collection, having come to the conclusion in the mid-90s that ignoring large swaths of their canon was somewhat short sighted of me. The live album, however iconic, would have to wait until later. There were studio albums to get first. Fact: I still need “Animal Boy!”

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

<insert nine year gap – here> Finally, when I was a member of the late, lamented LaLa CD trading community, I put “It’s Alive” on my want list and got myself a copy in…2006. Better late than never, but you can’t beat a $1.00 price! There have been almost too many live Ramones albums over the years. Some I even bought years before this one, like “We’re Outta Here” in a CD/VHS combo pack in 1997, but that was just for the amazing two and a half hour video tape of Ramones history and performance included. The actual live album was nothing special… apart from being the final Ramones performance. At the end of the day, when it comes down to just the music, “It’s Alive” is the one that your home needs.

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

That first trilogy of tunes that opened the album was so conceptually perfect, it served as a succinct précis on everything that made Ramones a great band. Bubblegum pop leanings cheek by jowl with self-deprecating black humor and more hooks than a tackle box. All washed down with the thrills that only sheer, manic velocity could impart! It still makes me weep to consider that a song as perfect a “Blitzkreig Bop” somehow failed to be a massive top 40 hit in this fallen world.

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

This album was the only, real Ramones live album because it’s the one with the original lineup playing on it. While I honor all members of Ramones [with the exception of the ill-considered Elvis Ramone – who only lasted for a couple of gigs], there’s a lot to be said for all of the guidance that Tommy Ramone brought to the project. Not only did he manage the fledgling band, but after showing auditioning drummers what they needed to do to make it in the group enough times, they bowed to inevitable and made him the drummer.

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

This is also a perfect Ramones album. The last one, actually. Why? Because it sports seven songs per side! Think about it. All of the best Ramones albums have 14 songs per disc! The other ones can be good, but they just don’t stand as seminal Ramones albums in the way “Ramones,” “Leave Home,” Rocket To Russia,” and yes…“It’s Alive” manage to do. This album is great because it captured, for the first time for those of us with ears outside of the punk bars of NYC, just what it was like to stand under the shower of sparks that were Ramones in concert. 28 song in 58 minutes; spread across four sides. It’s not even groove crammed!

“1-2-3-4!” – Dee Dee Ramone

And if that weren’t reason enough to love this album, let’s not forget that Ramones were trash culture mavens of a rare stripe back in the day. Not only did Ramones have an earlier song based on Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” that got played here [see: “Chainsaw”], but the band were trash culturally wise enough to have cribbed the very title of this album from the tasteless Larry Cohen B-movie of five years earlier. That the band themselves constitute a whole wing of the Museum of Trash Culture® goes without saying. Even 20 years after their final tour [and we were there], it’s hard to believe that the junk culture* machine that was Ramones is still not touring the world to thunderous acclaim, if not record sales. Play this album and relive the thrills and promise of punk rock providing a group of misfits with a way out of their predicament.

literally, in the case of Dee Dee

– 30 –

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Record Review: Rose McDowall – Cut With The Cake Knife

Sacred Bones Records ‎| US | CD | 2015 | SBR3017CD

Rose McDowall: Cut With The Cake Knife DLX RM US CD [2015]

  1. Tibet
  2. Sunboy
  3. Wings Of Heaven
  4. Sixty Cowboys
  5. On The Sun
  6. Cut With The Cake Knife
  7. Crystal Nights
  8. Soldier
  9. So Vicious
  10. Don’t Fear The Reaper
  11. Crystal Days

I got sucked into the Strawberry Switchblade vortex when I just couldn’t say no to the 12″ of “Since Yesterday,” which had appeared unbidden in Murmur Records one day. I bought every 12″ single as well as the band’s LP [there wasn’t a CD until several years later, and in Japan only], and I even bought the Ornamental 12″ of “No Pain.” I was aware of singer Rose McDowall’s dalliances with art-goth bands like Current 93 or Death In June; not really my cup of tea. What I was not aware of, was the 2004 self-released CD of this album of nine demos intended for the [missing in action] second Strawberry Switchblade album. It was some years later that I ran across this on Discogs and by then it was leaping toward the three figure price point; never a good thing.

I saw on The Quietus that someone was re-releasing the album about two years ago. I moved on as I do and actually forgot about that event… until last December and a trip to Harvest Records conspired to put a copy right in front of my face for the first time ever. I thought it over for a good 8 seconds before plunging my hand in the bins to extricate it. It went straight into the CD player on the trip home. I had loved Strawberry Switchblade’s expert mix of treacly synthpop and dark, melancholic sentiments. Not since the glory days of fellow Scot band Altered Images had I heard such a potent pairing of the two very dissimilar tastes, that still tasted great together.

“Tibet” was built on drumbox over surprisingly adroit fretless bass [!] and ultimately buckets of McDowall’s winsome harmonies. McDowall’s penchant for the melodic underpinnings of folk music was a consistent thread through her songs of this early period, though this is the most contemporary music of her’s that I’ve yet to hear. The prepossessing “Sunboy” matched a radiant chorus with equally lovely guitar playing. I wish the CD credits were more forthcoming with who the musicians were on these recordings.

The tunes here were light with deceptive frivolity; all cotton candy melodies made on happy machines and guitars that belied the lyrics and subject matter. It’s difficult to believe that anyone writing a song about Genesis P. Orridge would end up with a confection like “On The Sun” but Ms. McDowall says as much in the CD’s free-wheeling liner notes. To the point, it’s the reason why we might care. The title track wonderfully juxtaposed airy melodies and an upbeat vibe that none the less exclaimed that she would “…cut you with the cake knife… right between the eyes.”

This remaster also featured both sides of a 1988 single, released without her consent at the time, featuring a cover version of the Blue Oyster Cult chestnut “Don’t Fear The Reaper!” It’s hard to believe that a mid-70s hard rock staple like that would be fodder for McDowall, but she managed to seriously re-write the rules on this one. After opening with a lush and fruity harp glissando, cricket-like drum machine castanets set the rhythmic pace for what amounts to a trim [under three minutes] flamenco take on the formerly histrionic rock flameout. Finally, the similarly titled “Crystal Days” is a different recording of the earlier “Crystal Nights.”

Since the first CD was a signed and numbered edition of 500, I was more than happy to have this affordable, and bonus track bedecked version available at popular prices. Its charms are manifold even though the low-budget nature of the recordings belie their provenance as demos for an album that never was. As fans of Strawberry Switchblade may know, the band lurched between hyper-kinetic synthpop A-sides and pastoral, acoustic B-sides, with the exception of their pastoral [and brilliant] debut single, “Trees + Flowers.” These songs almost take the middle ground between those approaches with synths and drum machines along with guitars to achieve the effects that Ms. McDowall wanted to achieve in her songs this time out.

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If It’s Spring, It Must Be Crowdsource Time…

Last year around this time, you could tell it was Spring because all of the crowd-sourced projects were in bloom! Seemingly at once. I had Mari Wilson, Dr. Robert, and Billie Ray Martin all coming to a head at once.  This year things are heating up again. After kicking in for the prospect of the first Shriekback tour in a quarter century, who’s up next?

Stephen Emmer | Home Ground

Back in 2014, Emmer’s “International Blue” was a feast for the senses.  He’s extending his liaison with Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory as his lyricist with an album of guest vocalists in an entirely different genre; socially aware soul. One imagines that the orchestration he brought home to bear on “International Blue” will be right at home on the circa 1973 vibe of this new project. Vocalists lined up are: Chaka Khan, Patti Austin, Andy Bey, Kendra Foster, Frank Mccomb, Mary Griffin, Dwight Trible, Ursula Rucker, and Leon Ware [r.i.p.]. Though Gregory will not be lending his dulcet tones to this one, his lyrics should be provocative enough as the album is said to deal with the variety of conflicts that embroil the human race, and Emmer is putting his money where his heart is: 25% of all profit on digital sales and 50% on physical sales is going to the War Child charity.

From the sound of the singers, this one feels like it could slot in nicely next to the second B.E.F. album. Certainly, Chaka Kahn guested on both and ironically, that was the single B.E.F. album with no Glenn Gregory involvement! The album pledge has the usual variety of formats and price points. It gets released on June 9th, and as little as €10 gets the DL, with a CD being €19.25, and the LP at €28.79. This time the re-emerging cassette tape format has been added for €18.25. Not to worry, all analog formats come with the requisite DL. A sponsorship listing in the CD booklet will only set one back €29.25; a bargain for this sort of ego-boost. There are only 47 days left in the campaign so if you are inclined, DJ hit that button [below].

The Blow Monkeys | The Wild River

The Blow Monkeys keep it coming in 2017

Our friends The Blow Monkeys continue to lay down tracks in their ceaseless push forward! It’s been nine years since their welcome re-emergence and after the Dr. Robert solo album got out of his system last year, it’s time to reconvene the team. “The Wild River” is the new album, due out in Autumn of this year [171 days, if you’re the counting kind]. This time the band have convened in Dr. Bob’s home in Andalusia and he pronounces the proceedings as a trip “back to their soul roots” so maybe leave room on your shelf next to the Stephen Emmer album. Since they are recording in Spain, Tony Kiley won’t be able to make the trip to record, sadly. Instead, Crispin Taylor will be filling in on disc for the absent Kiley.

That’s sad, but not sad enough to keep Blow Monkeys fans away. The campaign has been live for over a month and sits at 137% of goal already. Pledgers can get a DL for £8, a CD for £15, 180g LP for £26, and that LP can be signed for just £5 more. Fancy your name in the CD book [I did this back in 2008 in the pre-dawn of crowdsourcing with this band]? £40 for the privilege. The most interesting thing looks to be a V.I.P. ticket to the launch party at the 100 Club in London with DL for £65. But not for me, alas. I’ve still yet to experience this band live. You’ve still got 171 days left, but you can pledge by clicking the banner below.

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Record Review: Billy MacKenzie – Wild Is The Wind EP

Rhythm Of Life | UK | CDEP | 2001 | ROL 006

Billy MacKenzie: Wild Is The Wind UK CD5 [2001]

  1. Wild Is the Wind 3:56
  2. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth 3:07
  3. Baltimore 7:40
  4. Give Me Time [version] 9:00

It was only after being a rabid Billy MacKenzie fan for a scant seven years that he shocked us all when he committed suicide in 1997. I had gotten to buy only two contemporary MacKenzie albums during that period as the mercurial singer had by that time, a prickly reputation that precluded his label signing. MacKenzie was well known to never do anything he didn’t want to [apart from his experiment in acquiescence; the mediocre “Wild + Lonely” album where he seemingly lost interest in digging in his heels]. In the aftermath of his death, there were only a scant handful of his projects in print on CD format. The vast majority of his back catalogue was on OOP vinyl. Of course, with his untimely death, his commercial profile rose as he had many, often influential, fans. So the flow of reissues began along with his last album recorded while alive for Nude Records, “Beyond The Sun.”

Some Associates albums soon followed and posthumous releases of material recorded but not released began to filter out shortly afterward. Ex-JosefK singer Paul Haig was a friend of MacKenzie with whom the recorded various songs during the wilderness years for MacKenzie. Haig first released a Haig/Mackenzie album, “Memory Palace” on his own Rhythm Of Life label in 1999. In 2001 another album’s worth of material written and recorded with Steve Aungle got a release by Haig. “Eurocentric” was a vibrant and eclectic release touching many genres beloved by MacKenzie. It had heart-wrenchign piano ballads rubbing shoulder [pads] with furious technopop dancefloor fillers like “Falling Out With The Future.” To herald the album’s release, an EP with two tracks from “Eurocentric” got a limited edition release of 500 copies. I wasted no time in ordering a few copies [chasinvictoria wanted one, too] and have gratefully had this in the Record Cell ever since.

The EP is in many ways, a cover project, touching upon the threads of artistic influence that had fallen upon the operatic MacKenzie. The first track was a cover of Dimitri Tiomkin’s widescreen ballad, “Wild Is The Wind.” The 1957 opus was first sung by Johnny Mathis, but for those of a certain generation, it’s best known as a David Bowie song, from his far-reaching “stationtostation” album. It’s no secret that Bowie was a big influence on MacKenzie, with his first recording with The Associates being a rogue cover of “Boys Keep Swinging” released just weeks after Bowie’s own. While Bowie’s version is pained melodrama at its finest, I have felt that it doesn’t hold a candle to MacKenzie’s interpretation. MacKenzie seemingly lacked the effort that Bowie was putting into the “feeling” of the song.

Aungle provided a sensitive and modest backdrop of piano and acoustic guitar that allowed MacKenzie a neutral canvas with which to brush his technicolor vocals across. Make no mistake about it. While Bowie was known to give a Scott Walker croon to complete with the best of them, MacKenzie’s range was even wider. He was the quintessential Male Diva capable of occupying almost any vocal space, whether masculine or feminine. Here he not only commanded the Bowiespace due to the song, but also managed to compete with Nina Simone’s 1966 version, recorded a full decade before Bowie recorded his version. Of course, Bowie was also in deference to the artistry of Simone. Given the influence of both Simone and Bowie on MacKenzie, it’s a wonder that he waited until the 1990s to have recorded his take on this pivotal number for that long.

The next number was a cover of Sparks “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.” If Bowie and Simone were two vocal titans that MacKenzie looked to , their it was a triumvirate of influences that were paramount in his art, and Russell Mael of Sparks was the third leg in that particular tripod. The version here was a slightly more sedate and unaffected music bed with Aungle’s piano maintaining an organic foundation for MacKenzie’s vocal, which was somewhat less fruity than Mael’s trilling delivery. The violin solo at the middle eight was courtesy of Kenny Brady [ex-Fall] and gave the song a delightful “victorian drawing room” patina. The best thing about this version of the song was that it could have been a performance done at any time during the last 150 years. There is nothing in it that begins to date the performance.

The first of two non-LP B-sides take up the remainder of the CD. “Baltimore” was another Nina Simone cover version wherein the moody thrush sang the previous year’s tune from Randy Newman’s “Little Criminals” album of 1977 on her album for Creed Taylor the following year. MacKenzie’s take, in contrast to the first two songe on this EP, was actually very au courant. Producer;s Denis Wheatley and Tony Newland strove for a trip hop vibe pregnant with dread well-suited to the despairing lyrics. This was the first song on this EP with a rhythm track, but it was very laid back and subdued. The melodrama of the music bed was aided by slow motion strings and surgical application of wah-wah guitar that tantalizingly referred to the Simone version. The mood really builds on this one! It’s not a million miles away from the Simone version, but the vibe was less funky and more foreboding.

Finally, “Give Me Time [version]” was a radical trip hop/hip hop restructuring of the song “Give Me Time” from the “Memory Palace” album by Haig/MacKenzie. The vocal spotlight here was on MC Buzz B who rapped over the first few minutes of the song, building a mood of his own before MacKenzie appeared several minutes into the humber, and then the titular song finally began to manifest. It’s a great remix, for doing something radical with the song, but MacKenzie did seem like a guest on his own recording here. That being my only caveat with it. Your mileage may vary.

Since this EP was pressed in low numbers [or what was low numbers for 2001], copies today trade hands for significantly more than its initial cost. The first two songs were beck in print in 2004 when One Little Indian obtained rights to the material that made up the final sessions of MacKenzie’s life at the behest of MacKenzie’s family, who deleted compiled new CDs in 2004 with the first two songs here appearing on the “Transmission Impossible” album of ballads. A shorter remix of the then retitled “Give Me Time [Denis Wheatley Mix]” appeared on the second version of “Memory Palace” that One Little Indian released, also in 2004. Sadly, the odd song out here was the also stunning “Baltimore,” which to date is OOP, and the reason why this EP changes hands for almost three figures.

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Posted in Core Collection, Record Review, Scots Rock, The Great B-Sides | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Record Review: Shriekback – The Elated World [part 2]

Barry Andrews and friend

[…continued from previous post]

When I popped this into the CD player, it immediately paid dividends with the frantic drum + bass of “Artminx.” The furious and repetitive vocal loops seemed like something more in Yello’s playbook than the work of Shriekback, but perhaps that was the whole idea of his exercise. As Mr. Andrews stated on the back cover:

“The combination of freedom and stricture is something we like and the absence of the usual pressure we feel when adding to the main Shriekback canon allowed investigation of some juicy new areas.” – “The Elated World” liner notes

Quite. The cut was like a hookbomb for the dancefloor with vocoded vocals and fast tempo vocals looped for maximum rhythm. Only on “The Bastard Sons Of Enoch” from “Sacred City” did they ever flirt with this sound, and not so adroitly.

“Sensation To Sensation” was more in line with the dark, seductive qualities we know and love the band for, while the vocoder was used another time here, recalling instead the eerie roots of the band as leftfield dark horses. The lovely piano throughout the song gets enough of a full exposure in the last third of the song to leave the track falling just on the “beautiful” side of the line in the sand next to “eerie.”

The band allowed the sponsors of the tracks to go as far as suggesting a title,but nothing more,  and some of the songs here have such near-to-self-parody monikers that I’m certain that the band would have never gone there themselves had it not been for the fans with £200 to offer per track. Surely “Clench Fist Labs” could have become a Shriekback song no other way? The track could have sat comfortably on the flipside of any single from “Big Night Music.”

“Brilliant Patina,” Tiny Struggle,” and the winner… “Indecisive Phenotype,” take Shriektitling as far as it can go, in a manner of speaking. There is a careful balance of atmospheric instrumentals as well as vocal tracks, making for a very listenable disc that touches partially on area of the band’s historical strengths as well as the occasional outlier to something completely different that Andrews alluded to in the quote at the start of this review. There are a few tracks here that can be connected to “The Bastard Sons Of Enoch,” the band’s 1992 proto-techno excursion into loop based development [that coincidentally saw Underworld MK I’s Karl Hyde playing guitar with the band]. “960 Drive” was certainly one of those. But the real “aha” moments come from things like the dub reggae leanings [!] of the delightfully dignified  and sophisticated “T*ts.”

Elsewhere, “Neurophreak I” and “Neurophreak II” form a seemingly unrelated duology whereby the first track was a long [4:54!] instrumental track which needed that much time to coalesce and build its dark, introverted mood, while the second number was a more direct vocal number of the typical 2-3 minute length that the album mostly offered. “More Percussion [than there actually is]” is another brilliantly titled, longer track of exactly what it touts right up front.

The split between instrumentals and vocal tracks is almost equal here. And many of the vocal tracks show Andrews in his most subtle form, with whispered murmurings and vocoded bliss taking precedence over his more outré and declamatory side. Think of this edition as a collection of all of the B-sides that Shriekback never got to make from 1992 to the present and while there are no outright duds here, there are certainly enough eureka moments to have justified the whole exercise. My spidey-sense® tells me that there may be some techno leanings on the next Shriekback waxing.

Hats are off to Shriekback for going down a road I would have preferred them not to take [exclusive music for those who could afford the relatively high cost] and to have concluded the experiment in such a populist way [a CD for anyone to hear] that I could only applaud. There’s no word as to when this will be released officially in the Shriekback store, but since I hold in my hand a CD, my guess is that it won’t be long before the band announce it to the world for wider purchase.

Unrelated Thoughts: After this CD arrived in my mailbox when I was fully expecting a DL, I was distraught that when the Kickstarter was announced, I was in the midst of saving my shekels for a vacation a couple of weeks down the road. When the band announced the “£1 or more” buy-in for this music, I felt that I wanted to send the band £5 since I really wanted their campaign to succeed, but was not in a position to go for the full £25 price point that was most appealing to me. Then the band shipped me a CD instead of sending me the DL link I read into their offer! Naturally I was feeling pretty badly about the whole thing, but the campaign is over. There’s no way to pledge further on Kickstarter. I took my concerns to Mr. Andrews afterward and he said not to worry about it. At least I didn’t pledge £1 and live in Australia! But still, it makes me feel uncomfortable that the band shipped me a CD for my modest £5 pledge, so I’m going to just send the band some more dinero. It’s not like I don’t have loads of payment records from all of the CDs I’ve bought from them directly in the last two years. I can’t afford to have my Shriekarma tainted! I value this band too much for that.

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